Drugs for non-communicable diseases like epilepsy are being hardest hit by funding shortfalls affecting Zimbabwe’s public health sector. While the government is struggling to meet its budget commitments, donors are more focused on communicable diseases like HIV and TB.
Tsarai Moto*, 25, from Musami village in Mashonaland East Province about 80km from Harare, has to travel to the capital for her anti-epileptic medication every month because of shortages of the drug in her area. She told IRIN that during these trips, she frequently experienced seizures as a result of having gone for days without taking her medication.
“My money and valuables have been stolen during the seizures and left me stranded,” she said.
Moto is one of an estimated 2 percent of people affected by epilepsy in Zimbabwe, according to the Epilepsy Support Foundation of Zimbabwe (ESFZ), an NGO that provides medical and psycho-social support services to people with the condition.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures. These seizures can be successfully controlled with anti-epileptic drugs, but according to WHO nine out of every 10 people with epilepsy in Africa go untreated.
ESFZ estimates that 86 percent of people with epilepsy in Zimbabwe are not receiving medication, especially those in rural areas.
Moto said people in her community viewed her as insane and that her frequent seizures had prevented her from completing primary school.
According to a study by ESFZ, the University of Zimbabwe and Bindura University, the greatest challenges for people with epilepsy in Zimbabwe are economic, with 93 percent of the people who participated in the research indicating that securing an adequate income was a problem; 78 percent had difficulties maintaining employment.
The research found that prejudice towards people with epilepsy and uncontrolled seizures caused by the unavailability of medication at local hospitals and clinics further reduced employment opportunities.
“The country is currently entrapped in a serious economic quagmire such that drugs for non-communicable diseases like epilepsy find themselves at the bottom end of priorities. There is no doubt that epilepsy has become a neglected condition,” said Dr Stanley Midzi, a World Health Organization (WHO) adviser.
“People with epilepsy should be accorded equal opportunities, most importantly getting an education and employment enabling them to fend for themselves, hence reducing government’s burden to look after these people,” he added.
“In most rural areas, anti-epileptic drugs are rarely available at clinics and even hospitals,” said ESFZ advocacy officer Taurai Kadzviti, adding that the condition is still associated with sorcery and witchcraft in such areas. “Early treatment and diagnosis of epilepsy in such an environment becomes impossible.”
Deputy Director of Mental Health Services Dorcas Sithole acknowledged that hospitals were running short of drugs. “Most hospitals in the country are running short of drugs due to financial constraints. As government, we are approaching various partners and donors for support to address this challenge,” she said.
Kadzviti believes more research on the prevalence of epilepsy around the country is needed to ensure correct quantities of medication reach all districts. “Intensive awareness-raising is also needed to educate rural communities about epilepsy and the need to take medication constantly,” she told IRIN.
*Not her real name