Summer project: six weeks in Zimbabwe

By Jennifer Martin, MSc Control of Infectious Diseases

Zimbabwe is a beautiful country filled with kind and gentle people, but unfortunately since independence in 1980, due to a corrupt dictatorship the country is regressing. The capital Harare is littered with remnants of colonial times that signify a once fruitful and progressive country. However one repressive regime has replaced another and the once hopeful people of Zimbabwe have suffered high unemployment rates, food shortages, and devastation due to HIV/AIDS. State healthcare providers, once thought to be the most modern in Africa have not been maintained and as a result are crumbling under the demand for cheap healthcare. The government champion free maternal healthcare and healthcare for children under five, but rarely this is received and out of pocket payments are binding people without health insurance in poverty. The dilapidated and under staffed hospitals are struggling to cope with the influx of malnourished patients due to the imminent famine. Paediatric wards are filled with babies with rubella, infants with rheumatic hearth disease and older children with chronic HIV infection. Staff are desperately trying to operate with old fashioned equipment in decaying surroundings.

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It was safe to say that I felt a little ignorant arriving at a hospital with my pressed and shiny white coat bearing my fancy hand sanitiser when the hospital didn’t have running water or electricity on a regular basis. I was keen to find out about infection control procedures and to promote the product that may stop the nosocomial acquisition of extended-spectrum beta-lactamase excreting gram negative bacteria and I was greeted with open arms. The paediatric faculty at my host institution the University of Zimbabwe were happy that I had taken an interest in the area and assisted me when possible. It was an incredibly challenging, but rewarding experience. Once I was fully established within the hospital I was able to work with an interpreter to distribute my product and collect data in the form of questionnaire and semi-structured interviews with the primary care givers and medical staff. I experienced first hand what it was like to live and work in a society that is struggling to provide clean water, electricity and medical care, and where corruption forces you to bribe the hospitals to allow your child to have a hospital bed.

Zimbabwe was a beautiful country and I had a wonderful time. I found the trip was a valuable experience that allowed me to put my knowledge gained from the School into context. Gaining first hand experience within an developing environment is invaluable and I felt like I was constantly learning about the culture, health seeking behaviours, the environment and the political aspects that contribute towards the success of disease control programs. It taught me that you must understand the community and enter into the bureaucracy if you wish to conduct a successful health intervention.

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