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ZIMBABWE: Teachers urge free ARVs as AIDS thins their ranks
IRIN News
October 14, 2005

http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=49561

BULAWAYO - Teachers in Zimbabwe have urged the government to provide free AIDS treatment after a survey revealed the profession was struggling with the highest infection rates in the country.

According to a report by the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), the country lost 566 teachers to AIDS-related illnesses last year. In the first six months of 2005, the death toll had already hit 362.

"We have lost more than 1,000 teachers across the country in the last 18 months. Many more are infected or affected and are suffering in silence. It is estimated that 25 percent of teachers are living with AIDS. The majority of schools in Zimbabwe have lost at least one teacher to the disease and at least two to three teachers are on AIDS-related sick leave," said the report.

What has made life for educators living with the virus all the more difficult is the overall cost of antiretroviral therapy (ART), and the limited access to government-subsidised drugs.

The government's ART programme costs each patient around US $2 a month. Although that is a huge saving compared with an average $50 a month for private treatment, there are still many extra costs such as laboratory exams, the price of drugs for opportunistic diseases, and more basic outlays such as transport fees and proper nutrition.

The state-run treatment programme is available at only two sites: the main public hospital in the capital, Harare, and in the second city, Bulawayo. Teachers working in the provinces have no access to treatment.

Teachers are among the lowest paid workers in Zimbabwe, battling to make ends meet in an economy haunted by a 360 percent inflation rate and shortages of basic household items. A junior teacher earns US $80, the most senior pockets US $160, while the cost of a monthly consumer basket is estimated at US $396.

"The increasing levels of poverty among teachers have contributed to the high level of attrition. It is unfortunate that whilst teachers are the engine room for social behavioural change, the National AIDS Council (NAC) and the ministry of education continue to sideline us in the battle against HIV/AIDS," said the PTUZ report.

The Zimbabwe Teachers Association (Zimta) has echoed those concerns, stressing that it was disturbed by the absence of government-initiated AIDS programmes specifically targeting teachers.

"We are equally worried about the continuous death of educators due to AIDS, and it's high time the government took a bold step towards addressing this. The least it can do is to afford us heavily subsidised ARVs, or just free drugs - that would help," ZIMTA secretary-general Dennis Sinyolo told IRIN.

Education Minister Aeneas Chigwedere said his ministry was doing its best to help teachers, but warned that, like all other Zimbabweans, it was the responsibility of educators to protect themselves against infection.

Zimbabwe, which has an adult HIV rate of around 20 percent, declared an AIDS state of emergency in 2002, allowing the purchase and local manufacture of cheaper generic drugs. However, foreign exchange shortages have limited the importation of raw materials, dealing a blow to the programme.

According to government figures, about 5,000 people die of AIDS-related illnesses each week.

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