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Zimbabwe Public Health Care Costs Soar

Economic problems in Zimbabwe are causing difficulties in the country's health care system. Public hospitals are rapidly deteriorating and the government's announced 3,000 percent fee increase means fewer people will be able to afford treatment.

Zimbabwe's inflation, the highest in the world, is pushing towards 1,000 percent per year, according to official statis tics.

This figure was announced earlier this month before the staggering increase in fees at public hospitals.

Harare has two main public hospitals. One of them, the Harare Hospital is barely able to function. The government-controlled Herald newspaper, says the hospital is too run down to provide basic health care.

The situation is better at the other hospital, Parirenyatwa, which was, a few years ago, considered one of Africa's finest public hospitals.

Government doctors say the state of public hospitals outside Harare and second city Bulawayo, is shocking.

Zimbabwe's health care system improved dramatically after independence 26 years ago. Zimbabwe embraced the World Health Organization's referral system, which means that minor ailments are treated at clinics, and more serious cases referred on to district, then provincial, and finally national hospitals.

That system has largely broken down, according to medical staff working within the public health system, because there are few drugs and trained staff at clinics.

There is not even an aspirin at our clinic, said a nurse in a small town 150 kilometers southwest of Harare. She said all the equipment is broken.

Deputy Health Minister Edwin Maguti said increases in fees at public hospitals will help overcrowding and provide more funds for better services.

Earlier this month, the government approved doubling fees at private hospitals.

The World Health Organization said last month that the life expectancy for Zimbabweans was among the lowest in the world, at 34 years for women. Although the government has disputed that statistic, the WHO has not volunteered a correction.

Zimbabwe's HIV/AIDS statistics are among the worst in the world, at about 22 percent of the sexually active population, although infection rates have dropped slightly.

A consultation at a public hospital would now cost about $10 (US) a day, or about a million Zimbabwe dollars.

One self-employed painter, working on a small building on the northern edge of the city, said he will in the future consult traditional healers. He said there was no way he could ever afford to take any member of his family to a public hospital again. He said he struggled to afford to buy enough food for his three children. He also said he doubted he would be able to send his two older children to school any longer because he could no longer afford the fees.