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Inside Zimbabwe's healthcare crisis

The collapse of Zimbabwe's health sector, once the envy of many African countries, has quickly spread the country's internal crisis to neighboring countries.

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Douglas Gwatidzo, chairman of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, describes the situation in Harare's health centers as "dire." "About one doctor is serving over 8,000 people in the country, [compared with] the world standard of 1 doctor to 500 patients," says Mr. Gwatidzo. "It's quite sad."

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Many mothers walk into Harare Central Hospital's neonatal unit with little hope of taking their infant children home alive. "I tell you those who come out alive only do so by the grace of God," says Mary Moyo, a young mother who had her child hospitalized in the unit last week.

In Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo, AIDS patients come to Thembelihle House for their last hope of a dignified end. Thembelihle is a hospice designed to provide terminally ill AIDS patients with enough food for them to regain their strength so their families can look after them.

But the shortage of drugs and medical supplies, the rising cost of food, and the growing poverty of Zimbabwean citizens are making it a lot harder for Thembelihle to do its job properly, says Gladys Dube, manager of the hospice.

She walks through the wards, where 62 of the 70 beds remain empty because of staff shortages. Women wash soiled sheets by hand. Used rubber gloves hang out on clothes lines to dry.

"We have nothing right now," says Ms. Dube. "We have a few candles in storage, for when the power goes out. Soap at the moment is difficult to find, so we are resorting to an entrepreneur who makes it himself, but the quality is not good."

She takes the hand of an emaciated young patient who has just checked in, and pats her forehead. "Some come to us in a very bad state. We can improve their nutrition so that they can go home to be looked after by their families." Aid agencies used to bring food, but there has been no food delivered here in the last month.

While doctors and even members of parliament blame the government for the crisis – Blessing Chebundo, chair of the parliamentary committee on health and child welfare, says the government lacks political commitment – the government itself says it is doing everything in its power to address the health care crisis.

"We are aware of the challenges in the health sector and we are doing everything within our means to tackle them," says David Parirenyatwa, the minister of health and child welfare. Parirenyatwa Hospital was named after his father, the country's first black doctor.

Minister Parirenyatwa blames the current crisis on economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, placed by Britain and the United States for Zimbabwe's alleged human rights violations. With little foreign currency, Zimbabwe cannot purchase drugs on the global market. "The shortage of foreign currency is a major impediment," he says.

A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.