Monica Cheru-Mpambawashe Lifestyle Editor
A week before he could complete the first term of his grade two at Hurumutumbu Primary School in Mutoko this year, Panashe Chaza died after a short illness. “At first we thought it was just a headache. Then three days later he took a turn for the worse. I hired a kombi which charged us US$10 to take my son to Huyuyu Clinic (about 12 Kilometres away). When we got there we woke up the nurse who tested his blood and said it was malaria. She gave him an injection and said that we needed to take him to Mutoko Hospital immediately.
“The driver said he wanted US$70 and I called my husband who told us to proceed to the hospital but Panashe did not make it,” stoically recounts Elizabeth Chirinda (26).
Chirinda is just one of five women who have buried their young children within a week in a 30 kilometre radius. In her case, she knows exactly what killed her son, with many other deaths being suspected of having been malaria.
According to emedicinehealth.com, malaria is caused by protozoan of the genus Plasmodium. The site also says that P. falciparum: which is the most life-threatening species of malaria, is particularly common in sub-Saharan Africa.
Recently Deputy Minister of Health and Child Care, Dr Paul Chimedza said that malaria fatalities in the country had gone down from 5 000 deaths per year a decade ago to less than 300 deaths per year. A recent report from the ministry stated that malaria had killed 26 people in week 14 of the year and of these only three fatalities were in Mutoko.
He, however, admitted that in border areas like Mudzi which is a neighbour of Mutoko, the disease still remains highly problematic. Investigations on the ground reveal that the problem could be of a bigger magnitude than even the ministry realises.
The grassroots leadership and ordinary people in Mutoko South dispute these figures saying far more people, especially children, are dying. They say the problem is not with the ministry but the system. They say the statistics provided only reflect the information of those who seek official medical attention, while those who die at home remain uncounted.
Councillor Trust Kachidza (32) of Ward 29 in Mutoko says that as far as he is aware there is no official system for capturing data of deaths which occur at home in the rural areas unless foul play is suspected and the police are brought in.
“The villagers only have to inform the village head (sabhuku) then they bury their dead. The village head will accompany them to the registry offices to testify that the deceased really died on the stated date so they can get a death certificate.
“In the case of children, very few people bother to do that yet these are the ones who die most. So those deaths go unrecorded. And the other problem is that even for adults who die at home and are just buried with no post mortem examination, no one knows the cause of death even if we suspect that it could be malaria,” Councillor Kachidza said.
Mr Manasa Tafirenyika (61) head of Village 99 said the problems that are keeping the disease in the area are manifold. He said that teams that traditionally get on the ground to spray mosquito breeding grounds in the last quarter of the year have lately been doing a shoddy job.
“In November last year I was informed that a team would be coming to this village. I gathered the committee that I work with and we spent the appointed day right here at my homestead waiting for them. They never turned up.
“I only heard a few days later that they had passed through a few homesteads where they did a desultory job. There have also been allegations that they exchange the sachets of insecticide for chickens with some villagers who then use the chemicals to spray various crops.”
Mr Tafirenyika senior, father to the village head said that although his home had been sprayed, he doubted the efficacy of the whole exercise.
“In the past when a room was sprayed, all creepy crawlies like cockroaches, flies and other bugs would all die. But this time around there was no perceptible effect, which makes me believe that they used a watered down solution, or even just plain water,” he explained.
Nicodemus Chaza, father to the late Panashe stated that the spraying team never visited his homestead which is low lying and surrounded by tall grass. Councilor Kachidza also said that not a single house in the whole of Village 98 where he resides was ever sprayed in 2013.
In separate interviews, Mr Tafirenyika, Councillor Kachidza and acting headman Mr Zinhanga who resides in Village 16 all said that the problem of malaria in the area is exacerbated by the strong presence of the Johanne Masowe church members who generally refuse to have anything to do with conventional medicine and believe in praying away all ailments.
“It is not a secret that the Johanne Masowe people generally ignore all injunctions to get treatment,” unequivocally stated Mr Zinhanga.
“Whenever these people see cars they run off to hide in the bush so their children never get immunised. One man, Marirevhu lost three children in one day from what we suspect could be malaria. But there is no way to verify that,” he said.
The three community leaders pointed out that while everyone has a right to practice their religion freely, it is important to note that this right becomes problematic when it endangers children and other people.
“How can the disease ever be eradicated when we have people who insist on harbouring it year after year by refusing to get treated?” Mr Tafirenyika posed the rhetoric question.
Mr Zinhanga also said that villagers have suffered allergic reactions to the treated mosquito which discouraged use.
“It is hot sleeping the nets. People got burns on the face. But we keep on encouraging everyone to use them, bury matamba fruit shells.”
He also pointed that since all villagers have been resettled there are greater distances between homesteads which may discourage the spraying teams who cover the areas on foot from due diligence.
An elderly woman who asked not to be identified said part of the problem is that for most people clinics are not easily accessible.
“The clinic is more than 10 kilometres away and the kombi goes early in the morning and returns late at night or sometimes you do not have the money for the fare. Then sometimes you are referred to hospital in Mutoko or Nhowe, which all charge a lot of money. So most people end up staying at home because they just cannot afford to get treated,” she averred.
Mutoko is only a case in point, with similar problems bedevilling areas like Mudzi, Manicaland and the Zambezi basin and other malaria prone zones.
Until the responsible authorities are prepared to tackle these head on, the eradication of malaria will remain a dream.
Calls have been made by various players to have a unified health delivery system that addresses all challenges holistically instead of channelling scant resources towards tackling one disease at a time.