HIV-positive widow Lilian Butau sits on a rickety stool on the veranda of her home in Harare's Mbare township, chewing on a small piece of calcium-rich rock, the only thing she has had to eat all day.
While many are going hungry in crisis-wracked Zimbabwe, Butau's case is more disturbing in that she is both struggling to get food and has also been unable to take life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) for the last four months.
Butau - who is blind, unemployed and has four children to look after - is entitled to free ARVs under a government-sponsored scheme, but when she last went for new supplies, she was told the hospital had run out.
"I am taking this as a vitamin supplement. It's all I can afford," says Butau, showing an AFP reporter a piece of rock believed to be rich in calcium and widely licked by pregnant women in Zimbabwe.
NGOs told to stop working
The 45-year-old is just one of the many silent victims of Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil which has devastated the health sector. She had been a beneficiary of food aid from a Harare-based aid agency until last month when NGOs were ordered to suspend their operations after being accused by government of meddling in politics ahead of an election.
Although the government says it has since issued an exemption for those involved in HIV/Aids and supplementary feeding schemes, the word does not seem to have filtered through to those on the ground.
"Yes there was initially a directive that all NGOs must stop operating, but we stepped in and said all those involved in HIV/Aids should not be stopped because of the delicate nature of their work,"
David Parirenyatwa, Zimbabwe's health minister, told AFP. Parirenyatwa admitted the directive had had an adverse impact, but
said authorities were working to rectify it.
"It has had a ripple effect which we need to correct urgently.
"I am hoping that the disruption was not long. We fear not only
relapses, but also an emergence of resistance."
Children dying as a result
Despite the minister's comments, Fambai Ngirande, spokesman for the National Association of Non-governmental Organisations, says field workers still face obstacles.
"Some (NGOs) have tried going back to the field, but workers have not been free to move with truckloads of food and get stopped at roadblocks and asked for a clearance letter, which they would not possess," said Ngirande.
Douglas Muzanenhamo, who works with Butau as a counsellor for HIV sufferers, struggled to suppress his anger at the impact of the original order.
"They have killed people," said Muzanenhamo who was until recently coordinating a feeding scheme for orphans of Aids victims. "One of the children in my (feeding) programme died recently. It's heartbreaking."
Despite the economic turmoil which has enveloped Zimbabwe since the turn of the decade, the government's record on combating Aids has won plaudits. Officials representing Zimbabwe at the world Aids conference in Mexico City will be able to point to an HIV prevalence rate which now stands at 15.6 percent of the adult population, having dropped from 31 percent in 2000.
Some 110 000 patients are recipients of free ARVs under a programme which began in 2004 and which ultimately aims to cater for 300 000.
'We will die from hunger and stress'
"We want very well that those on ARVs should continue. We will not allow to stock in some areas and not in others," said Parirenyatwa. He also denied there were any ARVs supply problems.
"All of our people on ARVs are able to access them for the next three months".
Infected 23 years ago, Butau's greatest concern is that while she has lived this long with the virus, the stress of the past few months could accelerate her demise.
"I get so stressed the moment I start thinking about my status that I lose sleep," she said, her lips white from the stone she has been chewing. "If we are going to die, it is going to be from hunger and stress." – (Sapa, August 2008)
Africans lobby govts to fight Aids
Zim running out of meds