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The sad queue for the kidney machine
Zimbabwe Today
July 31, 2007

As medical facilities decay, as equipment breaks and is not replaced, what hope for those who must have treatment?

There are many ways to die in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe today, starvation, riot, a visit from your friendly neighbourhood policeman... But one of the saddest now threatens a group of people already suffering from a life threatening disease.

They are patients with renal failure. In the past there have been sufficient dialysis machines in the country to cope with demand, even though patients often had to supply their own equipment and fluids bought for them by kind family members in South Africa.

But now, like so much of the infrastructure of this country, the machines have begun to fail. Last week the machine at Bulawayo's Mpilo Central Hospital broke down. This left one functioning machine in the country, here at the Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare.

I visited the renal unit at the hospital at the weekend and was shocked by what I saw - scores of patients, many of them elderly, many from far away, waiting patiently for a chance to undergo dialysis.

In pain, and with swollen limbs and faces, they were clearly aware that their prospects are grim. Each dialysis session lasts four hours, and patients normally require dialysis three times a week. The queue at the unit was long, and growing longer by the hour.

I spoke to one patient, Kenneth Ncube, from Nkayi in Matabeleland far to the South. He told me: "I travelled to Bulawayo to have my dialysis, but I was told that the machine at Mpilo had just broken down. Knowing the danger I was in, I took the train to Harare, but now we've been told that the machine here has broken down too. No-one can tell us when it will be repaired."

I understand that a lack of foreign currency means the government cannot afford to import spare parts for the machines. Desperate doctors and technicians have resorted to cannibalising old machines for parts, but this option is fast running out.

One doctor at the unit told me: "All we can do is give the patients pain killers. The future for these people is very uncertain. Once the urea and potassium levels go up, a person can easily suffer a cardiac arrest, and this can of course lead to death."

Next day I returned to the hospital, to find the gate to the Renal Unit sealed, with no-one allowed in. No-one was prepared to tell me why.

I called Health Minister David Parirenyatwa for his comments. (The name is no coincidence. The Parirenyatwa hospital was named after his father, the first black Zimbabwean to qualify as a medical doctor.) I asked him to comment on the fate of Zimbabwean kidney patients. This was his statement to me:

"I do not discuss these issues in the press, you are in the habit of fabricating stories. In any case, this is an issue of national security and you should send your questions in writing and copy them to Mutasa (State Security minister). Make sure the questions are on official letterheads and stamped."

It is probably a good thing that Kenneth Ncube and his fellow sufferers in that endless queue will never know or hear the words of comfort and sympathy offered by their so-called Health Minister.

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