Sunday Times, 06 October 2002, Aids takes its toll in infant mortality, Ronnie Govender

Hundreds of tiny coffins bear witness to the extent of fatal disease.

Bongiwe Nzimande this week buried her grandson, Sinemandla, who died eight days after he was born.

"It was a shortage of blood," she said, after performing the final rites at her funeral. "He just couldn't breathe."

Sinemandla is among 372 babies who have been buried at the Azalea and Mountain Rise cemeteries in Pietermaritzburg in just over four months.

Health officials and undertakers this week said that although Aids is not a notifiable disease by law, they believed that most of the 372 babies could have died of Aids-related illnesses.

When the Sunday Times visited the Azalea cemetery this week, nine tiny coffins were being off-loaded for paupers' burials.

Pietermaritzburg's senior cemetery superintendent, Ziggy Maphanga, confirmed that 372 babies were buried at both cemeteries between April and August this year.

"Like the 990 infants that were buried here last year, most of the children this year died of HIV/Aids," he said.

Robert Pawinski, from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Community Health, said the infant mortality rate "had gone up a worrying degree".

"If one looks at what's happening on the ground, in the wards, there's no doubt that there's an overwhelming increase in patients coming in with HIV/Aids. In the paediatric ward, we see four to five patients dying a week from Aids-related illnesses."

Pawinski said a recent study found that between 70%-80% of children suffering from pneumonia were HIV-positive. "These children with severe pneumonia will often end up dying in the next six months to a year. Pneumonia at the moment is one the most common causes of children dying of Aids-related diseases."

Steven Naick, a senior manager at Pietermaritzburg's Parks and Recreation Division, said the pandemic's impact really hit home when he accompanied a TV crew to the Azalea cemetery recently.

"In an area of over 150 graves, there were only two people who were over the age of 60. The rest were people between 20 and 30 years old."

Naick said there had been a dramatic increase in paupers' burials. "A lot of people are requesting pauper burials for their dead. It's because of the stigma attached to families that have loved ones who have died of Aids."

Michael Zuma, a gravedigger at Azalea, said he digs about 40 graves during the week and between 35 to 50 over weekends for burials. "But by Monday, they are full. Most of these graves are for babies who have died of Aids."