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hope to the forgotten
Palmer, Toronto Star
treated as a pariah of African nations. But Canadian doctors try
to aid at-risk newborns
The ends of
the "s" on the tiny sign at the fork in the dusty paths just outside
the Howard Hospital in central Zimbabwe swirl in curlicues, a seemingly
cheery illustration for such a dark message: "coffins for sale."
In a country
where HIV rates are in the double digits and there's no money for
life-saving drugs, death is a virtually certain outcome for AIDS
patients visiting the local hospital.
is hardly alone among African nations in its struggle against the
virus, none has a worse international reputation and fewer offers
Yet, for three
weeks this month, infectious disease specialist Dr. Andrew Simor
visited the overwhelmed Salvation Army hospital where expectant
HIV-infected mothers have learned that early intervention by the
Canadian doctor and his team can save their babies from AIDS.
In a country
where HIV infection rates hover at about 25 per cent, Simor is using
a $280,000 grant from the Canadian International Development Agency
to build a new laboratory and offer life-saving anti-retroviral
treatment and medications meant to reduce AIDS transmission rates.
"The women are
very aware of what the implications are," Simor said.
"HIV in that
country — there's still a stigma attached to it," he said. "Women
in particular don't want to know their diagnosis because their partners
blame them and beat them."
Simor has visited
the clinic every year to year and a half since 1998, mostly with
the help of the hospital and Ve'ahavta, a Jewish humanitarian group
with local and international projects.
specialty is tuberculosis and antibiotic resistance, Simor is better
known as the doctor from Sunnybrook & Women's Health Sciences
Centre who added clarity to the sensationalism surrounding SARS
and West Nile virus.
He first learned
of the Howard Hospital, 90 kilometres north of Harare, from Paul
Thistle, a Toronto-born and trained obstetrician who presides over
its wards as everything from family doctor to anesthesiologist to
thoracic surgeon, since he is the hospital's sole physician.
ago, Thistle was visiting family in Toronto and turned to one of
Simor's colleagues for advice on what to do if he got a needle prick
from an HIV-infected patient. That led to a partnership aimed at
reducing the number of babies infected with HIV during labour and
delivery by giving them drugs to fend off the virus as soon as they're
pharmacy shelves are frequently bare and its x-ray machines routinely
run out of developer, the government hospital treats about 300,000
people, most of them subsistence farmers who live in thatch-covered
huts that seem to radiate from the clinic, down dusty roads and
rugged pathways where chickens and goats scratch for food and women
walk in search of water.
of all, can afford to deal with HIV/AIDS," Simor said.
Already an ignored
corner of the world, Zimbabwe's pariah status makes it just about
the worst place to try to stop a virus bent on destroying it, says
He is harsh
in his criticism of President Robert Mugabe's dictatorship, calling
it "incompetent" and "corrupt." During these trips, he sees what
Mugabe's reforms have done to the local people, how they've grown
thinner and sicker and more depressed in a seemingly endless cycle
During his visits,
Simor says he feels a growing air of hopelessness permeating the
once seen as the bread basket of southern Africa for its rich mining
contracts, plentiful mineral deposits and lucrative farming sector
— one that not only managed to feed the country but export produce
and crops like tobacco.
an international pariah.
Land owned and
occupied by white farmers has been forcibly redistributed to black
workers by Mugabe's order. Aid workers say the result is that the
country is suffering from a serious, potentially deadly food shortage.
Blistering United Nations reports point to numerous human rights
abuses, including rigged elections and harassment of Mugabe's detractors.
The latest condemnation
came as Mugabe ordered the slums surrounding the capital city torn
down and the squatters forcibly removed.
Almost a quarter
of all Zimbabweans are infected with HIV, a staggering rate that
means out of the 12 million people who live in the south African
country, three million could die of AIDS.
While it's official
policy to provide every HIV-infected person with free anti-retroviral
drugs, the country rarely has any in stock.
Simor uses a
small, five-year-old CIDA grant to pay for a new laboratory at the
hospital, one that will be able to provide more accurate testing
for things like tuberculosis and HIV. Once that money is gone, Simor
says he's unlikely to get further funding from CIDA for Zimbabwe,
since the south African country's dictator makes it politically
unsavoury to provide foreign aid.
Simor is heading a study looking at whether transmission rates between
infected mothers and their babies can be reduced if the babies are
treated with anti-AIDS drugs at birth.
The study includes
counselling for the AIDS-infected mothers, which Simor insists helps
is looking at whether a shorter course of treatment is effective
at reducing infection rates among newborns, while yet another is
looking at ways to prevent mother-to-baby transmission through breast
So far, they've
convinced a dozen women to face the cultural stigma of giving up
breastfeeding after six months to study whether it has any impact.
just enrolled their first 100 non-pregnant patients in a study that
gives them life-saving anti-retroviral therapy.
"That's a drop
in the bucket when you look at the whole country," Simor said.
"But it's a
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