What happens when a government presides over the dramatic reversal of its population’s access to food, clean water, basic sanitation, and healthcare? When government policies lead directly to the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school, and the beatings of health workers, are we to consider the attendant deaths and injuries as any different from those resulting from a massacre of similar proportions?

..asks the group Physicians for Human Rights in their recent report of the continuing deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Yesterday, they called on the UN and other international actors to stronger action against the government of Robert Mugabe and went so far to accuse him of crimes against humanity through direction actions he took that led to the near complete collapse of the health system in Zimbabwe in recent years.

The report summarizes the main findings of a emergency mission the organization made last year to assess the public health crisis in the country. In addition to the “utter” collapse of the public health system, the deterioration of the basic water and sanitation structures, and as if that was not bad enough:

The current cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe appears to have begun in August 2008. As of this writing, more than 1,700 Zimbabweans have died from the disease and another 35,000 people have been infected. The U.N. reports that cholera has spread to all of Zimbabwe’s ten provinces, and to 55 of the 62 districts (89%) and that the cumulative case fatality rate (CFR) across the country has risen to 5.0% – five times greater than what is typical in cholera outbreaks. Control has not been reached: There has been a doubling of both cases and deaths during the last three weeks of December, 2008.

WHO has reported some 200 human cases of anthrax since November 2008 with eight confirmed deaths. These cases were attributed to the ingestion of animals (cattle and goats) that had died of anthrax. Zimbabweans avoid eating animals that have died of disease – but these cases appear to occurred in starving rural people scavenging carrion.

They conclude:

The health and healthcare crisis in Zimbabwe is a direct outcome of the malfeasance of the Mugabe regime and the systematic violation of a wide range of human rights, including the right to participate in government and in free elections and egregious failure to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health.

Will anything come of these calls for more action? To an outsider the situation appears to be spiraling out of control and is getting worse from week to week. There was some mounting interest before the Christmas period, but action plans seemed to have stalled as the economy and the Obama transition appear to be consuming most of our attention. Kudos for the PHR for keeping attention on this important issue.

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