The disruption of medical services provided by a team of American medical volunteers caused by their arrest last week has resulted in untold suffering for thousands of people living with HIV and Aids (PLWHA).
The team, which includes one doctor, two nurses, and a community volunteer, represented the Christian volunteer health service of the Allen Temple Aids Ministry based in Oakland, California, run by the Allen Temple Baptist Church.
The life-saving mission had been operational in Zimbabwe for more than 10 years, mostly focusing on distribution of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to people living with HIV and Aids and children orphaned due to HIV.
This interruption has claimed the life of at least one beneficiary, a 13-year-old-girl, who died on Sunday following admission to Chitungwiza General Hospital.
Her father, Augustine Dube, who is also living positively with HIV, has missed two weeks of medication, and has since started showing signs of ill health.
“I have started developing complications and as you can see my feet have started swelling and I am beginning to feel very weak,” he said.
Dube’s wife Senzeni died a few years ago leaving four children who were infected with HIV during birth.
“The eldest of the children died much earlier when she was 16 in 2008 and now I have lost this one who seemed to have responded well to medication which these Americans were providing us with for many years.
“The last two children aged 10 and 7 are receiving their medication from St Paul’s Catholic Church in Mkoba,” said a dejected-looking Dube.
Dube was at a loss as to how he would ferry the body of his daughter for burial in Gweru.
He had long left his job at Zimbabwe Alloys because of ill health, and he was living at the mercy of his peasant parents and well-wishers.
Dube and his teenage daughter, who had travelled to Harare for a medical check-up and to get their monthly dose of drugs, described the action by police as barbaric and inhuman.
“I was there when it all happened.
We had initially gone to The Centre where these doctors normally operated from but we were then told that they had moved to some location in Belvedere.
“I walked there with my daughter and found a very long queue and because I was number 125 in that queue, I decided to go and buy food because we were now hungry.
“Hardly 20 minutes after I had returned, we saw riot police jumping onto the property, bundling the doctors into the back of the trucks like common criminals.”
Dube said he saw the policemen grabbing the drugs and dumping them into the back of the trucks.
“My heart just sank as I watched the events unfold in my face.
It was the most heartbreaking incident of my life because my life and that of my daughter totally depended on those ARVs.
I saw the world crushing down on me.
“They are my life-saving drugs and now I await my slow walk to my own death.”
Dube questioned why the issue of licences was being raised now when American volunteers had been working in Zimbabwe for over 10 years.
“I am aware too that they also work with orphans at Mother of Peace in Mutoko but I am shocked as to why this has become an issue now.
I am so disturbed and wondering where I will get the $40 to buy medication.
“I’ve gleaned from newspapers that these people are now out on bail. Can someone give me their contact numbers please?”
The Americans and one Zimbabwean appeared before Harare magistrate Munamato Mutevedzi last week on allegations of practicing without a certificate and distributing drugs in the absence of a pharmacist.
They were ordered to surrender their passports, reside at their given addresses and not to interfere with witnesses.
Lawyer Jonathan Samkange, who represented the medical team, said that the allegations were a minor offence that did not warrant any detention at all.
A Harare medical practitioner said ARVs reduce replication of the virus in the body, so when a patient is suddenly taken off the drugs, this allows the virus to regenerate giving it the ability to overcome the body’s immune system.
“Added to that, there is a possibility of drug resistance and that means that the virus may not respond as before to the same ARV.
“Sudden stoppage of taking ARVs will result in rapid deterioration of their health that could result in death.”
The doctor said such patients needed to take pro-biotic, a yoghurt-like substance that boosts the immune system.
The substance is however not available in Zimbabwe.
A nurse at a government hospital said it was not possible for such patients to join the list of people on ARVs because there was a referral system that they followed.
“We have thousands of people on the waiting list who were registered two years ago who still have not received treatment,” the nurse said.
Aids activist Martha Tholanah added her voice and said: “Since ARVs help support the immune system against HIV, it means when one stops, that support is withdrawn, and will lead to the immune system becoming vulnerable to HIV.
“Resistance to ARVs will set in; opportunistic infections get their opportunity to play havoc in one’s body, leading to sickness, getting weaker and weaker, and a likely painful death.”
As Dube walked out of the NewsDay newsroom, one could feel his anger and frustration.
Touched by his plight, a NewsDay journalist gave Dube some money for travel to Gweru where he would meet his relatives and discuss burial arrangements for his daughter.
“I can’t reach the decision to bury her here on my own. It is a matter that has to be discussed with my family.”
Although HIV infections have gone down, Zimbabwe is one of the top five countries in Africa that have a high prevalence of HIV and Aids.
ARVs were initially donor-funded until this support was withdrawn.Unconfirmed reports indicate that over 10 000 people were on the list of people receiving drugs from the American medical team.