Silicosis cases on the increase in Kwekwe Mr Itai Rusike and Dr Patricia Mapanda

Michael Magoronga, [email protected]

THE gold mining town of Kwekwe in the Midlands province has a lot of mines dotted around it as the young and old jostle in search of the precious yellow metal legally or otherwise.

A significant number of unregistered mines have been sprouting of late, leading to a lot of illegal mining activities and unconventional mining methods.

Some miners have been cutting corners, as long as their methods lead to an ounce of the precious mineral whose availability has become both a blessing and a curse to the city.

A blessing in that it is a source of livelihood for many families.

Gold is a key economic enabler, not only for the province but also the country as a whole.

On the other hand, the recent collapse of a local school, a house and vandalism of council infrastructure has shown that the gold can be a curse as illegal mining activities are being conducted without regard to infrastructure or lives.

The unconventional mining methods being used by miners, both registered and unregistered, have recently led to an increased number of silicosis cases.

Mining methods which disregard proper protective clothing, use of banned chemicals such as mercury and cyanide have been largely attributed to the increase in cases.

Silicosis is a chest infection which causes the collapse of the lungs mainly due to inhalation of mining dust and chemicals. It is detected after a long period of time and once detected, silicosis is incurable.

Health experts say the use of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide is believed to be fuelling cases of silicosis hence the push by the Government and other stakeholders to ban their use.

Kwekwe General Hospital Medical Superintendent Dr Patricia Mapanda confirmed that silicosis cases were on the increase in the district.

“We have six silicosis patients at our institution and we have so far recorded 22 deaths. It’s a disease which causes chest infections mainly from mining activities. We have been receiving more of these cases of late,” she said.

Sadly, once detected, one can only rely on oxygen for survival, which is also running short at the institution.

“We don’t have access to oxygen and this is a threat to lives especially those that rely on oxygen for survival. I’m pleading with the Government to help us get oxygen for the benefit of those on life support,” said Dr Mapanda.

One might ask, is silicosis a death sentence?

“It might take 20 or 30 years for silicosis to be detected, but once it appears, it is irreversible. In short, silicosis has no cure,” said Dr Henry Madzorera, a medical practitioner and former Minister of Health.

Regular checks may help, he added.

“That is why all people working in mines and other industry occupations must undergo regular periodic pneumoconiosis examinations which include X-rays. The aim is to catch pneumoconiosis early and remove the worker from dusty working conditions and minimise seriousness of the condition,” he said.

Dr Madzorera challenged miners to take due prevention measures to avoid the loss of lives.

“The most important intervention is prevention through use of respirators, improving ventilation and avoiding freshly broken silica dust especially after blasting. We must strengthen prevention and periodical examinations,” he said.

Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) executive director, Mr Itai Rusike believes primary prevention measures are important.

“About 40 percent of such diseases and cancers are preventable by avoiding certain known risk factors. The main factors contributing to the increasing incidents of such diseases in Zimbabwe include infectious agents, increase in tobacco use, harmful alcohol use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and indeed environmental factors like in this case.

Prevention is the most cost effective intervention especially in resource constrained environments such as Zimbabwe,” he said.

Silicosis resulted in at least 43 000 deaths globally in 2013.

Young Miners Foundation (YMF) is made up largely of small scale and artisanal miners who are trying to upgrade themselves to large scale and its chief executive officer, Mr Payne Kupfuwa believes more should be done to raise awareness of the disease.

“Participants in the small-scale mining sector should wear appropriate respirators when working in areas where dust is generated. It should be mandatory. Early and periodic screening of silicosis should be employed to residents staying closer to where dust is generated due to mining activities so that they get early treatment before it becomes serious,” he said.

Mr Kupfuwa said most miners are not mindful of the disease hence the need for public awareness campaigns.

“Public awareness campaigns on silicosis and its effects should be deliberately done. Whenever there are gatherings, relevant authorities should educate the public on how to curb the disease.

“A regime of inspections by the relevant authorities should be done to ensure there is compliance with the pieces of legislation that protect the community from contracting the disease,” he said.

The increase in cases ratifies the need to raise awareness about the disease in the mining sector and remind mining companies of the importance of strict adherence to protective clothing use and pollution control measures.

“As EMA, we would like to encourage those in the mining and quarrying business to adhere to their environmental management plans when it comes to air pollution control.

They should put in place dust suppression measures in their areas of operation as a way of curbing air pollution,” said Mr Oswald Ndlovu, Environmental Management Agency (EMA) spokesperson for Midlands Province.

He said mining should be done in a manner that does not infringe on people’s rights to a clean, safe and healthy environment.

Safe mining methods should be practiced to ensure that people are safe from the disease, which has become a silent killer.

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