UNFPA Responds to the Health Sector Crisis in Zimbabwe

  • 23 December 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe— As the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe deepens and its health systems collapse, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has intensified its efforts to aid pregnant women and their families by providing critical supplies to hospitals and support to health personnel.

The crisis, which has worsened in the last few months with the spreading cholera epidemic, is characterized by hyper-inflation, deteriorating infrastructure, food insecurity, diminished access to basic social services, and massive unemployment.

Large numbers of mobile and internally displaced people, ex-farm workers, the poor and the vulnerable have lost their livelihoods and are left with very limited coping options. Lack of access to basic social services, such as safe water and proper sanitation, shelter, health services — including access to reproductive health services and life-saving emergency obstetric care — have left vulnerable populations dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival.

The HIV and AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe has worsened the plight of many families. More than a million Zimbabweans are living with HIV, with prevalence estimated at 15.6 per cent. Prevention of HIV and access to clean and safe delivery, including emergency obstetric care services, are critical components of the coordinated humanitarian response in Zimbabwe.

The deteriorating capacity of the health system has recently been significantly worsened by the cholera epidemic, which has affected nine of the country’s ten provinces, with a cumulative number of reported cases since August 2008 of more than 20,000 and over 1,000 reported deaths. In response, the Zimbabwean Government has declared the cholera outbreak a national emergency, but the situation remains dire and may worsen with the current rainy season.

As the cholera epidemic spreads, evidence is mounting of a health system in collapse. Both the availability of health services and the ability of families to pay for care has declined. Though significant support is being mobilized to address the cholera outbreak, some UN officials fear that this approach may leave out most of the vulnerable groups in need of health services.

As part of the humanitarian response to the worsening health sector crisis in Zimbabwe, UNFPA, working through the United Nations-led Health Cluster, has intensified its support to emergency obstetric care services in the hardest hit central hospitals. The support has focused on two critical priority resources: essential supplies for emergency obstetric care and a supplementary allowance to the health workers stationed in these units.

In the last few days, UNFPA, in consultation with the Zimbabwe Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, delivered emergency reproductive health medicines and surgical supplies to the central hospitals for use in their maternity units. The commodities comprised of Inter-agency Reproductive Health Kits for use in crisis situations. The total consignment can meet the needs of a population of about 900,000 for at least three months. In addition, UNFPA distributed medications to prevent haemorrhage and eclampsia that should fill the national need for the next six months. UNFPA has also started paying incentives to health personnel working in the maternity units at the central hospitals.

The UNFPA support is meant to complement initiatives by the Zimbabwe Ministry of Health and partners to kick-start operations of central hospitals' maternity units, which are barely operating due to critical shortages of staff and supplies. These challenges have reduced the capacity of the health system to respond to the needs of the population, putting the lives of thousands of pregnant women and their families at risk.

During a handover ceremony of the emergency reproductive health kits at Parirenyatwa Hospital Ms. Gift Malunga, the UNFPA Assistant Representative, urged the government, donors, NGOs and all other players to urgently respond to the call for supporting human resources in the health sector.

—Reported by Phylis Munyama in Zimbabwe and Shannon Egan in New York

Through the 2009 Consolidated Appeals Process, organized by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNFPA has appealed for approximately $4,959,400 to provide much-needed basic life-sustaining services, including critical reproductive health care and social information and services to the poorest and most vulnerable Zimbabweans. The Fund is also calling for the provision of much-needed medical equipment and supplies, the rehabilitation of primary maternal and reproductive health-care facilities, and training of health workers on antenatal and emergency obstetric care services. It continues to advocate for the prevention of HIV through information and sensitization campaigns, and the detection, prevention and treatment of violence against women.

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