Mrs. Grace Mugabe (131334)

March 30 (GIN)—First lady Grace Mugabe is being treated in Asia for appendicitis, according to government officials. Local media reports say she was flown to Dubai and then Singapore for surgery in January but that she has a cancerous condition, not appendicitis as government claims.

Her husband, President Robert Mugabe, also spent weeks in Singapore in 2013, for what was variously reported as an eye condition and prostate cancer.

Local officials are now facing questions about the message this sends to Zimbabweans, whose health system is near collapse from lack of funds.

Presidential spokesman George Charamba dismissed concerns that the Mugabes were enjoying a level of care denied to regular citizens. “The first family can choose its doctors the same way you would choose doctors in South Africa,” Charamba told a New Zimbabwe reporter in an interview. Those needing care, he said, need not be confined to Zimbabwe. They can choose South Africa, London, India or elsewhere.

Since her nomination to lead the Women’s League of her husband’s party, Grace Mugabe has spent little time in the country, aside from an appearance March 8 for International Women’s Day.

Should Mugabe suffer from colon cancer, as is widely reported, she would be among some 5,000 Zimbabweans diagnosed with cancer every year, according to the government’s National Cancer Prevention and Control Strategy for 2013 to 2017. That number, along with a mortality of more than 1,000 deaths per year, was called “the tip of the iceberg” in the official report. Current cancer treatment and palliation services are unable to meet the existing demand, the report acknowledges.

With limited funds for new treatment facilities, the report offers a three-pronged cancer prevention strategy: development of a tobacco and alcohol control policy to reduce exposure to nicotine and other carcinogens, introduction of a vaccine for adolescent girls to prevent HPV and deployment of a vaccine for hepatitis B.