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The problem with presidential medical travel

There's still a lot of confusion surrounding the death of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika from a heart attack yesterday, but from what Reuters is reporting, it seems that his country's shoddy infrastructure and medical system may have played a role:

The 78-year-old was rushed to hospital in Lilongwe on Thursday after collapsing but was dead on arrival, the sources said. State media said he had been flown to South Africa for treatment although his immediate whereabouts remained unclear.

Medical sources said the former World Bank economist had been flown out because a power and energy crisis in the nation of 13 million was so severe the Lilongwe state hospital would have been unable to carry out a proper autopsy or even keep his body refrigerated.

Many Malawians blamed Mutharika personally for the economic woes, which stemmed ultimately from a diplomatic spat with former colonial power Britain a year ago.

"We know he is dead and unfortunately he died at a local, poor hospital which he never cared about - no drugs, no power," said Chimwemwe Phiri, a Lilongwe businessman waiting in a snaking line of cars for fuel at a petrol station.

It's impossible to say if Mutharika would be alive today if he could have made it to a properly supplied hospital, but as BBC Kampala correspondent Joshua Mmali put it on Twitter last night, "Lessons outta 4 : You can't go to the UK or Germany to treat a heart attack. Improve your health systems"

It has indeed become a depressingly common occurence for leaders to head abroad for major medical treatment -- an option Mutharika didn't have. In recent years, we've seen Venezuela's Hugo Chavez travel to Cuba for cancer treatment, Saudi King Abdullah come to New York for tests, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh travel to Saudi Arabia to treat injuries sustained in an attack, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari go to Dubai for undisclosed medical treatment, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani head to Jordan for treatment of exhaustion and dehydration. There are plenty of other examples from Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare.

It's always a bit surprising that this isn't more politically embarrassing. If there isn't even one hospital in a leader's country where he feels confortable getting treated -- presumably by that country's best doctors and the most advanced equipment available -- that would seem to be a pretty damning indictment of his leadership. 

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

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