Dr. Mazhani retires: the man who saved children through pmtct

A towering figure of children’s health care, Dr. Loeto Mazhani has bid farewell to the world of public health leaving behind an unyielding body of work that makes his peers and patients alike refer to him as an anecdote of sheer dedication, selflessness, and the father of Paediatrics in this country. Botswana Gazette Reporter Tshepiso Babusi explores the life of a man who 30 years ago, at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic first implemented the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) in Botswana and saved millions of lives as a result.

Dr. Mazhani’s three decades of contribution to the field of paediatrics and the public health system of Botswana as a whole is undeniable and his retirement, inevitable as it may be, feels like a tremendous loss, proclaimed those who graced his farewell ceremony over the weekend.

Prior to retirement, the much admired doctor practiced as a paediatrician in Nyangabwe Hospital; he later served as Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health for a period of 3 years under then Minister of Health Joy Phumaphi.

Following his tenure in government office he threw his weight into establishing the Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Health, at the University of Botswana (UB). In an interview with this publication, one can tell that he did not do his work for the praise poems. In fact, he called his career “serving humanity”.

In 1989, during the plight of the HIV/AIDS scourge, Dr. Mazhani described a rise in children’s deaths that was petrifying.
“So many kids died due to complications that were beyond our control. The mortality rate at the time was terrifying and the worst I had ever encountered. It was as if we were at war,” he expressed.

According to Dr. Mazhani, the innovation that prevented transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child was at the time expensive and available only in developed countries.

When a study in Thailand indicated that giving infected mothers AZT lessened the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child, Dr. Mazhani, along with the support of the former President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, took the bold step of implementing the drugs universal application to HIV positive mothers.

That marked the birth of the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) program in our country. Botswana pioneered this program in Africa and saw a staggering decline in the occurrence of transmissions of HIV/AIDS from mother to child.

Greats seldom sing their own praises, so I contacted Dr. Joel, the current Academic Head (Chair) of Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Health at UB and current President of The Botswana Paediatric Association for comment.

“I’ve known Dr. Mazhani since 2008 and when the School of Medicine opened, he was the only employee. He literally built the department from scratch!” Dr. Joel explained.

Today the department is fully staffed and has graduated 7 paediatricians, with 30 still training at different levels. Dr. Joel, who got the opportunity to work under the supervision of Dr. Mazhani, spoke highly of him, his work ethic, discipline and ability to teach as well as remain teachable.

Dr. Joel recalled a time that he was on call but happened to be too far to attend a procedure as he was called in at 3 AM; Dr. Mazhani went out of his way and offered to do the procedure on behalf of Dr. Joel. He did not raise any trepidation as to his supervisory position and for him it was always and still remains caring about the patient.

To put things into perspective, Dr. Mazhani said, ‘Illness does not respect time.’

From the outside looking in, waking up at 2 AM for a patient seems like a challenge but to him, it is the nature of the job. “I’m over 60 years old, but I still receive the calls because of my willingness to serve,” he said.

Mazhani says he has encountered numerous cases that have confirmed that he is indeed living his purpose. He gave an instance of a case of a premature baby during his time in Nyangabwe hospital. “The mother was so worried. The baby was about 800 grams. Dr. Brown and I explained the risks to her and that we will do our best to provide the necessary care.” Dr Mazhani narrated.

All the mother wanted was to know whether her child was going to be treated well and recover. To which his colleague Dr. Brown responded, “Only God knows”.

The distraught mother turned to Dr. Mazhani for an understanding of what the phrase meant. “Go itse modimo”, Dr Mazhani told the mother, and consequently, that is the name the mother gave to her baby. Fast forward to a few decades later, Goitsemodimo is a student in UB, whereupon her mother insisted they pay Dr. Mazhani a visit. These are the kind of full circle moments that have kept him grounded and driven in his pursuit of making significant strides where public healthcare is concerned.

Naturally, the nature of his character begs the question of the role his upbringing played in crafting who he is. Dr. Mazhani simply attributes who he has become to education, hard work and effort. “I’m just from humble beginnings, a village called Mulambakwena. I started my primary there, passed through to Mater Spei, UB and eventually headed to the US, Washington”, he added. He has also had mentors and fellow colleagues who have positively impacted his journey throughout his career, he says. It goes without saying that he has left giant shoes to fill.

A quick Google search of his name brings about 1,550 results in 0.23 seconds while ResearchGate lists 56 research articles under his name, all focusing on medical faculty of children at birth and adolescence.

Dr Mazhani said that true leadership builds strong institutions that survive long after the men at helm exit. He is confident that the department he was instrumental in building from the ground up at the School of Medicine (UB), will continue to thrive in his absence.

Dr. Joel echoed the same sentiments, “Everyone now knows their role because we have had a leader that led by example.” He said. Dr. Mazhani must’ve sensed my nervousness when I asked what was next for him. His response came with a reassuring laugh, “I am just retired, not tired.” He is looking into opening a Paediatric Cancer Treatment Centre so that Botswana won’t need to keep incurring the costs of sending cancer related cases to neighbouring countries.

Dr. Mazhani also plans to open a private practice in Francistown; he insists the mind must be kept busy. While he might have hung his boots in the public health sector, it appears the country still stands to benefit from his brilliance.