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Zimbabwe Awaits International Funding to Help Lower Maternal Mortality

Zimbabwean PM Morgan Tsvangirai greets a mother and child in the children's wing of Harare Central Hospital. (File Photo)

Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped government is hoping for international funds so more women can give birth safely in hospitals. Right now high medical costs force many poor rural women to give birth at home contributing to high maternal mortality rates. Zimbabwe’s minister of health and child welfare is calling the situation “really desperate.”

These are lucky mothers and their healthy new born babies delivered at this rural Howard mission hospital in Chiweshe - a communal area north of Harare.

United Nations figures show about 8 women die in child birth each day in Zimbabwe or about 725 women for every 100,000 live births. Most of them occur at home, because the $25 delivery fee charged at hospitals is out of reach for most women.

Zimbabwe Health Minister Henry Madzorera acknowledged the maternal mortality rate is on the rise and is unacceptable.

“That is a very bad statistic. We have deteriorated very seriously over the last 10 to 15 years," he said. "So we have got to do a lot of hard work. If you want to call it desperate, it is really desperate.”

Despite this, he told the media in Harare Wednesday that hospital fees will remain until the international community chips in with $430 million to bring the county's healthcare system back to a sound footing. He warned that eliminating hospital fees now could be more disastrous.

“Removal of fees is a process, it is not an event," said Madzorera. "Remember in Zimbabwe we once removed user fees completely and it collapsed. In Uganda, they removed them 10 days before an election. It worked for a time, but then the system starts feeling the pressure, you run out of resources. There is nothing is nothing called removing user fees without resources to substitute the source of revenue that was sustaining the hospitals.”

Madzorera spoke to journalists after the European Union donated some $5 million to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as a contribution aimed at eliminating hospital user fees for women and children under the age of five.

Peter Salama, the head of UNICEF in Zimbabwe which will administer the fund, said he was hopeful that other international donors would assist the African nation's health delivery system. Salama said about $200 million had already been pledged by international donors.

“There would be no real reason why health facilities should be charging user fees I think by end of 2012," said Salama. "And I say by end of 2012 because it will take up some time for all elements to be up and running. Some are already functioning like the essential medicines programs, others have to really reach full gear. By the time they are all in full gear there should be no reason why facilities should charge user fees for at least pregnant women and children under five. ”

Zimbabwe's health delivery system almost collapsed after the government’s chaotic land reform program, which began in 2000, resulted in a national economic meltdown and hyperinflation. However since the formation of a coalition government in 2009, there has been a slow recovery. Even so the country’s financial situation remains precarious and essential services such as health care have only partially recovered.