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Newborn deaths indict health system

IT never rains but it pours for 25-year-old Matilda Manuel whose four-year-old son was hit by a truck along Harare-Bulawayo road when bulldozers descended on Porta Farm during the controversial Operation Murambatsvina in 2005.

Although five years have passed, the horrific image of her son, Fanadi Manyere, being hit by the truck as he tried to flee the squatter camp when bulldozers accompanied by police with ringing sirens arrived at the farm will forever remain in her mind.
Five years on, tragedy hit her again. She lost her twins in 2008 while giving birth in her wooden shack built on 180 square metres at Hopley farm — a settlement created by government to accommodate more than 5 000 people made homeless after it destroyed their homes at Porta squatter camp, 10km south of Harare.
The squalid conditions people live in and the lack of proper sanitation has left the residents vulnerable to waterborne diseases. At the moment, families at the farm rely on one borehole and unprotected wells sunk close to their one-metre deep pit latrines.  According to Amnesty International, five of the six boreholes sunk by humanitarian organisations were not working when they visited the farm in June this year.
Manuel lost her twins while giving birth in her small room with the help of an unqualified neighbour.
This is just one of the many examples that show the inclusive government’s failure to provide proper and affordable maternity facilities for the less privileged.
“I have gone through very painful moments in my life, some of which could have been avoided,” she said. “In September 2008, I was heavily pregnant with my babies. I did not know they were twins because I could not afford to go to the clinic, worse still for a scan. I only discovered that when I gave birth,” she said.
“I fell sick on September 14 and I walked to Utsanana clinic in Glen Norah. I stayed there three days and on the third day I was discharged and told to go home because I was okay but the biggest problem was money. They wanted $50 billion (Zimdollar) which I could not afford.”
Manuel said on the day she was discharged she got into labour that night and an inexperienced neighbour came to assist her.
“I gave birth behind the door,” pointing to the wooden door, “my neighbour was so overwhelmed by the job because she didn’t know it was going to be hard work delivering the children.”
“The challenge came when she failed to remove the placenta and I was tired. Lucky enough that is the time my husband came and he had to rush us to the clinic through the assistance of a well wisher,” she said.
At the clinic her placenta was removed successfully but unfortunately her twins had died.
“I was very pained, I spent several weeks not feeling well and having hallucinations of the pain that I went through. If only I could have afforded going to the clinic my babies would still be alive.”
Today, Manuel, who is a housewife surviving on selling paraffin, has a baby girl, Trish, whom she gave birth to last year without required maternal and newborn healthcare.
“I gave birth to Trish in September,” she said. “This time it was just sudden and I did it by myself. My neighbour only came to help with cutting the umbilical cord. I risked giving birth again in the house but there was nothing I could do because I could not afford the money,” said Manuel adding that she was not sure whether the utensils they used during child birth were clean.
Amnesty International released a report No Chance to Live recently in which it told government to urgently investigate the deaths of newborn babies at Hopley settlement area.
Amnesty International found that at least 21 newborns had died at Hopley within a five-month period indicating a very high level of newborn deaths within the settlement.
Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Africa director, said the victims of Operation Murambatsvina had been forgotten and their situation continued to deteriorate.
“Many of the women we spoke to felt that their minimal access to healthcare contributed to the deaths of their babies. Others suspected that their babies died of cold because they live in plastic shacks,” said Kagari.
“The government must ensure these women have access to maternal and newborn healthcare in order to prevent further avoidable deaths.”
Amnesty International said the city fathers could not do much to help the women at Hopley, saying the council and the government did not have demographic information of the population at Hopley, which the council said was necessary to plan health interventions.
A woman who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent on condition of anonymity said she has helped give birth to a number of children in the settlement despite her inexperience.
“There is no maternity clinic in this area even though it’s a very big settlement. The woman sits behind the door and that’s where everything is done. Anyone who is close by can come and help even if one doesn’t know how it is done,” the woman said. “Sometimes one gets into labour suddenly that there is no time to look for plastics to wear as protective clothing. We touch the blood with our bare hands.”
She added: “We know the importance of maternal and newborn healthcare because we used to receive such special care during previous pregnancies while we were at Porta Farm that was under MP (Patrick) Zhuwawo.”
Unicef country representative Peter Salama last week said at the launch of the child survival strategy that every day “in Zimbabwe, around 100 children die, mostly entirely from preventable deaths”.
Salama said: “For newborn deaths, the highest risk period is the first day of life. In Zimbabwe, we lose more than 5 000 children every year in their first day of life — a time when we should be celebrating the births of a precious new life and not mourning their deaths.”

 

Wongai Zhangazha

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