Children in Zimbabwe are the underreported victims of tuberculosis (TB) — a preventable and curable infectious disease — which remains a leading cause of death in the country.
As the World TB Day commemorated on March 24 every year kicks in, many children like Tinago and Thembi Gwenzi, have the disease to contend with.
In one room of their house in the capital Harare, Tinago Gwenzi coughs uncontrollably. His sister, Thembi Gwenzi in the next room is in even worse condition, coughing and spitting blood – her eyes welling up with tears.
Their parents died of TB four years ago and they are under the care of their aunt who moved in to stay with them.
Both parents had toiled for years as panners at a gold mine in the outskirts of Harare where they made the little money they needed to support their family.
Later on, the couple contracted TB, a common disease across the mining areas in Zimbabwe.
In this Southern African country, TB continues to be the leading cause of death among people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
With no choice and no means to survive even as they lived with their aunt at home, the siblings went down to the neighboring mines where they panned for gold, and like their parents, contracted the disease.
“They both have TB; I can tell you they are better now; they were worse two months ago. People think they have AIDS. That’s not the case at all,” Miriam Chaota, the aunt, told Anadolu Agency.
– Difficult diagnosis
Four years ago, Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry launched a project Catalyzing Pediatric TB, to scale up the diagnosis and treatment of the disease among children.
However, to many health workers like Bhekimpilo Sibanda, a laboratory technician at a top private hospital in Harare, children remain the country’s underreported victims of TB.
“Children even as they may show signs of having TB, here in Zimbabwe, it’s difficult to diagnose them of the disease,” Sibanda told Anadolu Agency.
Of Zimbabwe’s approximately 16 million people, 48% are children, according to official figures.
The Health Ministry says some 20% of those infected with TB are children.
Their aunt, now their ultimate guardian, has pinned the blame for the marauding TB on Zimbabwe’s defunct public healthcare system.
“If one gets admitted in hospital with TB, that person is sure to die even earlier because there is no medicine nor proper care given to people with the disease, worse still for children,” said the aunt.
TB remains the world’s deadliest infectious killer, with over 4,000 people losing their lives daily to the pandemic while 30,000 people fall ill with the disease, according to World Health Organization (WHO).
Compounding Zimbabwe’s war against TB in children, is inflation hovering above 300%, according to the International Monetary Fund last year.
Doctors and nurses in the country have since last year been downing tools every now and then, demanding improved wages to match with the country’s spiralling inflation.
In 2016, according to WHO, an estimated one million children below 15 years were infected with TB globally, but only 434,044 cases were reported, with over 253,000 children dying annually from the disease.