Gains in reducing infant and child mortality in Southern Africa are being eroded by the impact of HIV/AIDS, the 40th Regional Health Ministers' Conference for East, Central and Southern Africa was told.
A paper by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) regional health advisor, Dr Rumishael Shoo, warned that children continued to die from preventable diseases "for which we have known interventions", and that "without accelerated intervention efforts, many member states will not meet the [relevant] Millennium Development Goals" (MDG).
The health ministers' conference in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, ends on Saturday.
UNICEF Zimbabwe spokeswoman Shantha Bloemen told IRIN that "child and infant mortality rates have gone up regionally, [mainly due to] a health sector crisis driven by demand for health services as a result of the AIDS epidemic".
"Already limited health services are having to cope with a much greater burden, plus the effects of brain drain etc," Bloemen added.
She said progress made in the 1980s, "which saw dramatic increases in child survival rates, were not cemented and solidified ... we moved on too quickly, without ensuring we had mechanisms in place to maintain [intervention programmes]".
In October UNICEF's 'Progress for Children' study, a global report card on progress towards achieving the MDG of a two-thirds reduction in under-five mortality rates between 1990 and 2015, noted that Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland had recorded the second, third and fourth fastest increases in under-five deaths in the world.
According to the report, the under-five mortality rate in Botswana increased from 58 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 110 in 2002; in Zimbabwe from 80 per 1,000 in 1990 to 123 in 2002; and in Swaziland from 110 per 1,000 in 1990 to 149 in 2002.
Zimbabwe's Health Minister, Dr David Parirenyatwa, told the conference that in his country infant mortality rates had risen from 40 to 65 per 1,000 live births between 1985 and 1999, the official conference newsletter reported.
More needed to be done to reduce child-killer diseases, such as acute respiratory infection, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhoeal illnesses. "The challenge is to stimulate broad-based sustainable economic growth and development, as well as consolidate effective child feeding public programmes," Parirenyatwa was quoted as saying.
Bloemen noted that the "situation in Zimbabwe, where the health sector is suffering from a lack of resources and a shortage of staff, has impacted on infant and child mortality".
The number of vaccinations against preventable diseases in Zimbabwe had also declined in 2002, due to a shortage of foreign currency.
"They did not have enough forex to buy the vaccines ... and UNICEF has been providing support through funding from DFID [the UK Department for International Development] and other donors for vaccines, and [immunisation] coverage rates are starting to increase again," Bloemen added.
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