ZIMBABWE: AIDS organisations still grounded

Home-based care programmes have been shut down in some districts
Johannesburg, 1 July 2008 (PlusNews) - As Zimbabwe's political crisis deepens ahead of the presidential run-off election on Friday 27 June, and the status of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) remains uncertain, the situation for HIV-positive Zimbabweans is more precarious than ever.

Nicholas Goche, the social welfare minister who regulates NGO activity, announced on 13 June that more than 400 organisations working in the HIV/AIDS sector would be exempt from the blanket ban on NGO operations announced the week before.

However, NGOS working in the AIDS sector have told IRIN/PlusNews that local police and militia are preventing them from operating in many districts. "On the ground, the first message [banning all NGOs] had already gone out," said Lindiwe Chaza, director of the Zimbabwe AIDS Network, a national umbrella organisation for AIDS organisations.

Goche's statement exempting AIDS organisations has not reached all officials. "We are appealing that beyond just making that statement, the message is understood at district levels," Chaza said.

Moira Ngaru, director of the Farm Orphan Support Trust of Zimbabwe (FOST), which runs home-based care programmes for people living with HIV, told IRIN/PlusNews that her organisation had had to stop its activities in all the districts where it works.

''If you do manage to get into the field, you're asked not to do anything by the local militia''
"We're supposed to be exempted, but when you go on the ground, they just say all NGOs [are banned]," she said. "If you do manage to get into the field, you're asked not to do anything by the local militia."

In the Chipinge district of Manicaland Province, in southeastern Zimbabwe, the police came to FOST's office and told them to close. In other districts, field workers were too afraid to visit clients living in rural areas.

"You can travel into the area, but the moment you go in, you have to identify yourself and it's dangerous," Ngaru said. "What it means is that we don't know the state of the patients at the moment."

Zimbabweans living with HIV have been hard hit by hyperinflation, unemployment and shortages of basic commodities resulting from the country's economic meltdown. Many depend on food parcels from NGOs like FOST, but a warehouse full of food destined for FOST's HIV-positive clients had to be returned to the suppliers before it expired because of the ban being misinterpreted.

Treatment available, but other barriers

Loretta Hieber Girardet, a senior HIV/AIDS advisor with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who visited Zimbabwe last week, said the political violence had not disrupted the government's treatment programme, which provides ARV drugs to about 100,000 of the estimated 321,000 people in need of them.

Girardet pointed out that there was "intense interest" by the donors funding the government's programme to ensure that treatment continued, because interruptions in ARV treatment can result in the HI virus becoming drug-resistant and more difficult to treat.

Reports of drug supplies not reaching hospitals in rural areas because of transport and security issues were very difficult to verify, said Girardet. "The humanitarian community is not getting access to the rural areas. Even the government institutions which deal with AIDS, such as the National AIDS Committee, are not able to go into rural areas."

Chaza, of the Zimbabwe AIDS Network, said her organisation was also struggling to get reliable information. "To the best of my knowledge, the government [treatment] programme hasn't been interrupted, but there have always been other barriers."

Even before the recent wave of violence, patients had found it difficult to afford transport to health facilities, buy enough food to take with their ARVs, and make enough money to support their families.

Contingency plans needed

No one knows whether Friday's poll will go ahead, or to what extent it will lessen or worsen the violence, but Girardet said UN agencies and donors were planning for the possibility that people may not feel secure enough to leave their homes and travel to hospitals to fetch their medication.

The large numbers of Zimbabweans, some of them HIV positive, who were likely to seek refuge in neighbouring countries if the situation in their country deteriorated required a regional contingency plan, said Girardet.

"Another concern is that there are large numbers of young Zimbabwean women who've left Zimbabwe and are now engaging in survival sex in neighbouring countries and, to our knowledge, there is no effective [HIV] prevention programme that's in place."


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Conflict, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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