“We cannot afford to service these broken machines,” health official.
Inside a cancer ward at Parirenyatwa Hospital, a visibly frail patient sits uncomfortably in a wheelchair before her routine check-up.
A dozen other cancer patients sit on wooden benches as they impatiently wait for their turn to see the doctor on call.
Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020, Mable Mupachiri*, 45 says she is lucky to be alive after relatives contributed for her treatment before her situation could get worse.
But she was on the long list of cancer patients due for radio therapy when Parirenyatwa’s only radiotherapy machine broke down in February this year. It was the only functioning cancer machine in the country.
“I panicked,” she says.
“I was due for radio therapy when were told that the radio therapy machine had broken down. My doctor had to immediately suggest chemotherapy,” Mupachiri tells The NewsReport.
“This is my third cycle; I must admit it is draining. I am always tired, and the pain gets worse. But the doctors assured me that I will get better.”
The 45-year-old is among dozens waiting for the radiotherapy machine to be fixed.
Radiotherapy is cancer treatment that requires radiation to kill cancer cells and reduce their growth.
Authorities say they require millions of dollars, including flying engineers from abroad to fix the cancer machine.
State of radiotherapy in Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe there are only two radiotherapy centers, Parirenyatwa Hospital to serve the Northern parts of the country and Mpilo that caters for the Southern parts.
Parirenyatwa has three radiotherapy machines but since January, the hospital has not been offering services after the equipment broke down.
Oncorecare is the only private medical center offering radiotherapy services in Zimbabwe however due to the prohibitive costs of private care in Zimbabwe cancer patients may just have to wait.
For a session, a patient will have to part with between $500 and $1000 which is beyond the reach of many Zimbabweans.
The NewsReport toured the cancer treatment center at Parirenyatwa where on the country’s most sophisticated and biggest radiotherapy machine is housed.
Authorities admit it is costly to get the machine back to functionality.
“The equipment is so sophisticated that. In terms of costs one machine costs US$1 million, we are not talking of small monies here,” an official said.
“The spares are not found in Zimbabwe. We do not have local engineers to repair the broken machines. So, we import the spares and the human resources. We must bring engineers from abroad, for troubleshooting to diagnose the problem so that they tell us what is needed. They will go back and submit a report to the manufacturer and a quotation will be sent to us,” the official added.
Parirenyatwa turned down a service contract offer under unclear circumstances. This would have guaranteed quick service whenever the cancer machine is down.
“We cannot afford to service these broken machines,” the official admits adding that the radiotherapy machines are overwhelmed with the number of patients seeking treatment.
“Even when the machines are working, they won’t survive for long. We are serving 70 to 80 patients a day. They often overheat and break down. Those machines are also overwhelmed. We are treating people from everywhere.”
Radiotherapy equipment requires millions in investment, a physicist said.
This includes radiotherapy bunker, which costs $1 million to build, using special materials like steel and led.
This is done to keep radiation inside the bunker so that it does not affect anyone outside the radiotherapy room.
“You need massive investment into the radiotherapy rooms because radiation is dangerous. For shielding you use concrete, steel or led so that the radiation is kept inside the room. The bunker requires $1 million to house the machine. Buying the machine is another cost,” the physicist said.
When building the bunker, Ministry of Public Works engages architects while approval for use is done by the International Atomic Agency.
Medical Apartheid in Zimbabwe
Albert Maimba, 34 pushes a cart towards Kuwadzana Polyclinic.
His 80-year-old father has just suffered a stroke and Maimba is racing against time to save his life.
In the absence of a reliable ambulance system, poorer Zimbabweans must improvise to get medical attention.
“I hardly see ambulances here, the only way you can get a loved one to the hospital is by asking for a lift from a neighbor or using the pulling cart,” Maimba said as nurses place his father in a wheelchair.
“I fear my father will not get much help here. I also do not have the money to get him proper treatment,” he said.
While the country grapples with cancer treatment, a medical apartheid is unfolding in Zimbabwe.
Relegated to medical facilities where pain killers are never in stock, Zimbabweans living in townships and other poorer neighbourhood face a worsening medical crisis.
Richer Zimbabweans have different problems. A choice of where to get treatment.
Sprawling medical centres with state-of-the-art services have sprouted around Harare in recent years.
Outside Milton Park Medical centre, top of the range SUVs fill the parking lot as multi-racial walk-in clients seeking medical services troop in by the hour.
Inside the medical centre, relatives of patients house here sit at the coffee shop while others sit comfortably browsing through magazines as they wait for visiting hour.
In sharp contrast across the road, relatives visiting patients at Parirenyatwa sleep uncomfortably on the patched grass.
Milton Park Medical Centre is one of Harare’s top medical facilities.
Faced with a collapse in public health, richer Zimbabweans are investing in private medical care widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Covid-19 also unravelled growing inequality with public health institutions failing to provide the much-needed oxygen to the detriment of those who cannot afford private health care.
Senior Hospital Doctors Association president Shingai Nyaguse said:” A lot of people are skeptical about putting money where there is general lack of accountability. You end up having two extreme types of health care systems.”
“With no disposable income in a country like Zimbabwe where inflation is skyrocketing it is unfortunate that a few people can access private health care because it is on the expensive side. It is expensive because the resources found in private health care are also very expensive. It shows great differences between the poor and the upper middle income or rich patients. The discrepancy is quite huge.”