Meet the WHO president

Forward Nyanyiwa and Veronica Gwaze
Filling the big shoes left by the late legendary Dr Timothy Stamps was always going to be an insurmountable task, but not so for the recently-appointed World Health Organisation (WHO) 71st Assembly president, Dr David Parirenyatwa.

The man is arguably one of the unsung heroes of the Zimbabwe’s health delivery system.

For many Zimbabweans, the name Parirenyatwa brings memories of one of the biggest referral centres in the country, the Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, which was named after Dr David Parirenyatwa’s father.

Having attained his medical degree in Nigeria, Dr Parirenyatwa had to prove that he was his own man, contrary to the belief that his claim to public life was through his late father and national hero, Dr Samuel Tichafa Parirenyatwa.

He was only 10 years old when his father, who was the first black Zimbabwean doctor to practice in the country, was assassinated by the Ian Smith regime. That alone, coupled with his sterling works during the war of liberation, set a high bar for the junior Dr Parirenyatwa.

But as fate had scripted, David Parirenyatwa joined the public service back in the 90s, immediately coming face to face with the horrendous scourge of the HIV and Aids pandemic.

Duty bound, Dr Parirenyatwa was among the Zimbabwean delegation which travelled to Uganda, winter of 1997, to acquaint themselves with the east African country’s response to Aids.

Director of Aids and TB Services in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Owen Mugurungi, who was a junior medical officer then, has fond memories of the trip.

“Uganda was the only African country that had a clear and pronounced plan in the fight against HIV and Aids. They had a viable model which we had to implement here as well and I remember very well travelling with Dr Parirenyatwa.

“He was passionate about the disease and for a week, we gathered a lot and learnt from our Ugandan counterparts,” said Dr Mugurungi.

Coming back home after the fruitful trip, Dr Parirenyatwa helped establish HIV testing and counselling in the country in 1998.

They worked at increasing awareness in a society that was reeling from the effects of the once deadly scourge.

In 1999, he was instrumental in the setting up of the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme, which saw the provision of Anti-retroviral medication to all HIV infected mothers in labour.

The programme has recorded great strides in preventing the transmission of HIV and Aids to unborn babies.

The PMTCT programme resulted in the drastic fall of new infections to infants as the country began the journey to mitigate the effects of Aids.

Dr Parirenyatwa was among those who championed for the National Aids Council, which was adopted through an Act of Parliament in 1999, and the Aids Levy in 2000. Companies and those formally employed were taxed 3 percent of their taxable income to set aside funds to fight the disease.

Following the resignation of the late Dr Timothy Stamps due to ill health, Dr Parirenyatwa was thrown at the deep end when he was made the captain of Zimbabwe’s health ministry in 2002.

Having worked as an understudy to the legendary Dr Stamps, Dr Parirenyatwa took over the reins and kept the ship afloat. It was time to showcase the knowledge and experience he had gained over the years.

He became so passionate about HIV and Aids such that whenever he got the opportunity to talk about the disease, he would preach the prevention gospel, earning the moniker “Dr Prevention” due to his “prevention, prevention, prevention” mantra.

Dr Parirenyatwa’s litmus test came in 2008 during the infamous hyperinflation period when the country endured one of its major health disasters as cholera affected 20 000 people, leaving more than 4 000 people dead.

He led a blitz to stop the epidemic, which was threatening to wipe out an entire generation. During that period, Zimbabwe was undergoing a phase of both economic and social trauma, with the situation worsened by the lack of medical supplies in medical institutions.

At the time, a well pronounced brain drain almost crippled the health delivery system. But in partnership with various funders and other stakeholders, Zimbabwe managed to contain the situation.

Dr Parirenyatwa campaigned for the scrapping of user fees for the under 5s, those above 65 years of age and for maternity registrations.

A lot of hospitals and clinics were constructed under his watch and currently, Zimbabwe prides itself as one of the countries with viable infrastructure in the health sector.

Dr Parirenyatwa was also instrumental in the immunisation programme which saw the elimination of previously known “six killer diseases”.

The deputy director of policy and planning in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Mr Tonderai Kadzere, having worked closely with the Health Minister for close to three years, said many people in the sector look up to him.

“He is one person who has done a lot in the health sector and many of his counterparts in the Sadc region look up to him for advice. We have travelled a lot around the globe. He creates chances to discuss the various tasks at hand.

“Just last week, (on Wednesday), he launched the Zimbabwe National Health Financing Policy in Murewa. I wish him all the best during his tenure as the president of the WHO Assembly,” said Mr Kadzere.

Zimbabwe is one of the few African countries to adopt the National Health Financing Policy strategy in the world, a policy that seeks to respond to health challenges by providing primary framework to ensure that universal health coverage resources are raised sustainably and allocated well. Currently, Dr Parirenyatwa is working towards having hospital boards in all provincial and district hospitals to improve efficiencies and increase revenues.

Dr Parirenyatwa’s twin children, Tawanda and Tanaka, said their father believes in family ties and likes to spend most of his family time with his grandchildren.

“Dad is above all a friend and the best listener you can ever meet. Life of service to others is imprinted in his DNA and he is one person who embraces family ties. Above all, he is endowed with confidence and humility,” said Tawanda.

Tanaka added that although his father grew up in the shadow of his grandad (Dr Tichafa Parirenyatwa), he has worked hard to prove his worth.

The minister’s fourth born son, a doctor by profession who is also the eighth man on the national rugby team, Tapfuma, said his father has always supported him in sport and watches every game he plays.

His fifth child, popular radio and television talk show host, Ruvheneko, said Dr Parirenyatwa raised his family on tough love, fostering a culture of hard work and discipline.

“My father bought me books instead of dolls like my age mates, mangos instead of candy. I never understood his intentions until now. He is also a good story teller. For years, my father has kept a consistent gym record, making him the oldest in the family but probably the strongest,” she said.

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