- Zimbabwean women and Swazi men have the shortest lifespan in the world, according to a new report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) today. Neither men nor women in one of the world's fastest shrinking economies are expected to reach the age of 40, according to the 'World Health Report 2006', based on the statistics for 2004. AIDS and the economy are mostly to blame.
Since the 2005 report, based on the figures for 2003, life expectancy for both sexes has plunged by two years: Zimbabwe's women now have an average lifespan of 34 years, the lowest in the world; that of men is 37 years.
Among the 192 countries included in the WHO indicators, Swaziland recorded the lowest life expectancy for men - 36 years - with 39 years for women.
Carla Abou-Zahr, of WHO's Health Metrics Network, said the decrease was related to the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, but local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have linked it to the unfolding economic crisis.
Ironically, Zimbabwe, which formerly had one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence, recently became the first Southern African nation to report a significant decline in HIV infection, from 24.6 percent in 2003 to 20.1 percent in 2005.
"I am not surprised at the low life expectancy," said rights activist Everjoice Win. "The statistics expose the impact of unaccountable governance on Zimbabweans: we have the world's highest rate of inflation; it is a completely dysfunctional state with a collapsed economy, which has driven healthcare professionals - doctors and nurses - out of the country; and then you have the scourge of HIV/AIDS."
With inflation at almost 800 percent, people are battling to cope with rising prices and drug shortages. According to the local media, lack of foreign currency to purchase medicines was among the reasons why Zimbabwe failed to meet the WHO target of providing anti-AIDS drugs to at least 120,000 HIV-positive people by the end of 2005.
Local newspapers have also reported that many provinces had run out of tuberculosis drugs, while deepening poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic were contributing to the resurgence of tuberculosis, to which those with weak immune systems are more prone.
Faced with desperate drug shortages, an ailing medical infrastructure and low salaries, many medical personnel have quit their jobs for better paying ones in neighbouring countries like South Africa and Botswana, while others have emigrated to European countries, where better salaries and working conditions await them.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), three babies in Zimbabwe become infected with HIV every hour. "We are familiar with the decline in the life expectancy - Zimbabwean adults and children are among the most vulnerable in the world," said UNICEF spokesman James Elder. "Not nearly enough people are receiving ARVs [AIDS drugs]."
The government-controlled Zimbabwean 'Herald' newspaper reported this week that a shortage of doctors and nurses had made it difficult for people to access anti-AIDS treatment soon enough, and some died because of the long time it took for them to see experts, especially at public health institutions.
Zimbabwe "needs support more than outrage", commented Mr Elder. "While you are constantly inspired by the way Zimbabweans continue to support each other amid desperate economic times, 90 percent of the country's 1.46 million orphans are still cared for by extended family. The stress that a Zimbabwean family is under is becoming unbearable," he warns.
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