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Riot police wear face masks on the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Zimbabwe went into a lockdown for 21 days in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

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Lockdown heightens children’s HIV risk

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ZIMBABWE may experience a rapid increase in parent-to-child transmission of HIV after law enforcement agents turned away expecting mothers from accessing basic health services during Covid-19 lockdowns, a leading pressure group has warned.

BERNARD MPOFU
Over the past 12 months, the country has enforced strict lockdowns to reduce the spread of the disease.

Human rights watchdogs also blame the authorities for failing to bring to book members of the security services who were accused of human rights violations such as assault, intimidation and sexual harassment at checkpoints.

Tendayi Westerhof, the PAN-African Positive Women’s Coalition Zimbabwe (PAPWC-ZIM) national co-ordinator, said Covid-19 restrictions in Zimbabwe may result in a higher infant mortality rate as many women failed to access healthcare.

“Pregnant women had challenges of registering for ante-natal clinic, viral load testing and getting prophylaxis for the baby born from an exposed mother,” Westerhof told The NewsHawks in an interview.

“Some deliveries of babies were done outside health institutions because of the lockdowns. So prevention of mother-to-child transmission programme was impacted negatively, therefore there is an anticipated increase of infant vertical transmission of HIV during that period.”

Westerhof said the violations had also resulted in an increase in mental health cases.

“Mental health issues were on the increase during that period as social support systems remained constrained. We had to advocate for new technologies and new ways of doing business—the social media, WhatsApp groups etc. But at the end of the day, we discovered that the majority of women who are in the community just have that basic phone (handset) which cannot make them engage in webinars and Zoom meetings,” she said.

According to the Zimbabwe Population-based HIV Impact Assessment survey (ZIMPHIA 2020), 86.8% of adults living with HIV were aware of their status and of those aware of their status, 97% were on anti-retroviral treatment. Among those on treatment, 90.3% achieved viral load suppression.

The survey further shows that the rate of annual new HIV infections among adults in Zimbabwe is 0.38% (0.54% among women and 0.20% among men) or approximately 31 000 persons over a year.

The prevalence of HIV among adults was 12.9%, which corresponds to approximately 1.23 million adults in Zimbabwe living with HIV in 2020. Generally, the survey found that HIV prevalence was higher among women than men (15.3% vs. 10.2%).

Last year, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) raised the red flag after personnel manning Covid-19 checkpoints turned away people who were seeking passage to access healthcare facilities.

“This is a clear violation of section 76(3) of the Zimbabwean constitution which states that ‘no person may be refused emergency medical treatment in any health institution’. Whilst we note the requirement is in place to protect fellow health workers, we advise that public health institutions should have the testing facilities readily available for emergency cases such that patients are not turned away and told to get tested in private institutions,” ZADHR said in a statement.

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