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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Huge hike in Zimbabwe health fees
An ox-drawn ambulance in Zimbabwe
Ox-drawn ambulances were introduced in 2004
Zimbabwe has announced a huge increase in the cost of health care at public hospitals, as it grapples with the world's highest inflation rate.

Public hospitals fees have gone up from Z$300 to between Z$800,000 and Z$1m (US$10) with immediate effect, the state-owned Herald newspaper reported.

The costs of consultations, maternity services, surgery and intensive care are also increasing.

The government says the rises will help pay for improved care.

The 333,200% increases come a month after the government lifted a freeze on private health care charges, which have since doubled.

'Decongestion'

Correspondents say the old fees of Z$300 were no longer practical, as $100 notes have become virtually worthless and disappeared from circulation.

Deputy Health Minister Dr Edwin Muguti told The Herald that people were going to hospitals if they had colds because the fees were so low.

"These increases should lead to a decongestion of casualty departments in our hospitals, leaving specialised personnel to deal with emergency cases only," he said.

The health sector has been hit hard by Zimbabwe's deepening economic crisis.

Conditions have deteriorated with drugs and trained staff in short supply.

The doctors and nurses who have not gone to work abroad have staged a number of strikes over the past few years.

Zimbabwe has the highest annual rate of inflation in the world at more than 900%, and the lowest life expectancy, at less than 40.

Sabotage

Correspondents say poverty, because of the crumbling economy, and deaths from Aids are responsible for the decline.

It also faces shortages of foreign currency, food and fuel as well as irregular water and electricity supplies.

President Robert Mugabe blames Zimbabwe's woes on opponents who he says have sabotaged the country over his land reform policy when white-owned farms were seized.

Aid workers estimate some 3m people, mostly in rural areas, need food assistance this year.

Ox-drawn ambulances have been introduced in rural areas in recent years, in what the opposition alleges is a sign that President Mugabe is taking Zimbabwe back to the stone ages.


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