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ZIMBABWE: HIV-positive nurses go it alone

Photo: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
LESO's volunteers provide home-based care to chronically ill patients
Harare, 15 May 2009 (PlusNews) - For the past year, Olive Mutabeni's home in Chitungwiza, a low-income suburb 20km outside Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, has been the makeshift centre of operations for the Life Empowerment Support Organisation (LESO).

After 23 years as a nurse in the public health sector, most recently as the coordinator of prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT) services at Chitungwiza Central Hospital, Mutabeni quit her job and started LESO to provide the sick and elderly in her community with emotional, medical and practical support. Four other nurses soon joined her.

"I feel I can achieve more here than at the hospital because I can spend more time with the people," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

Her daughter's bedroom was turned into a counselling room; an outbuilding next to the house became an office; the front yard became a meeting place for support groups and a training venue for income-generating projects.

"We've got 300 people with HIV who come here for support groups," Mutabeni said. "We're also teaching people how to grow mushrooms and how to make vaseline and shoe polish."

Zimbabwe's public health facilities were starved of resources, drugs and equipment for years, but a health worker strike that began in November 2008 shut them down completely for several months.

Although Chitungwiza Central Hospital has reopened, HIV-positive patients needing to start antiretroviral (ARV) treatment join a six-month waiting list, and various drugs for treating opportunistic infections are still out of stock.

ARVs are donor-funded, but many of LESO's clients, like Beatrice Shaba*, cannot afford the hospital fees for blood tests and other drugs. "I'm on ARVs, but I'm in trouble now because I need another CD4 count and I don't have the cash," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

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Shaba used to support her entire family through her job as a sales representative, buther husband died from an AIDS-related illness in 1998 and a few years later she lost her sight to meningitis. "I can't do anything anymore," she said. "People don't understand how I can have nothing when I've been working all along, but I exhausted my savings when caring for my husband."

LESO is not funded; its volunteers are unpaid and can give clients little more than over-the-counter pain killers, but people have been flocking to Mutabeni's house since the organisation opened its doors in March 2008. They get a sympathetic ear and advice from trained nurses and counsellors, two of whom are living with HIV themselves.

Mutabeni discovered her HIV positive status after testing to set an example for her patients, and Rosa Mufunde, LESO's HIV/AIDS officer and clinical manager, started routinely testing for HIV after her husband was diagnosed with the virus. A test she took in 2007 came back positive. "I want people to know that nurses are HIV positive and helping people," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

Among the people they have helped are HIV-positive Erica Sakuhwehwe and her brother, Almighty, who was paralyzed by a neurological syndrome. Erica's partner left when she became sick last year, and she now feeds and cares for her four children, as well as Almighty, on her own.

"At times I cannot lift him or push his wheelchair; my health is not 100 percent," she said. But she regularly pushes Almighty's wheelchair over potholed roads to get to LESO, because "the counselling is so helpful for both of us."

Mutabeni would like to do more for her clients. "Many people want to test [for HIV] here, but we can't; we're professional counsellors but we don't have test kits; we're limited by funding and the space is getting too small. Here in Zimbabwe, [donors] don't recognise small organisations like us."

*Not her real name


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

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

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