LUPANE, ZIMBABWE // Church-funded hospitals in remote areas of the country, where medical drugs are cheap and the staff well trained, are increasingly becoming the only affordable healthcare option for Zimbabweans. This, said Billy Rigava, a doctor and chairman of the Private Hospitals' Association, is the exact opposite of the situation in the 1990s, when it was fashionable and affordable to get treatment at privately owned or government hospitals in urban areas. Then, rural hospital staff often referred patients to centres in towns that offered specialist treatment and better facilities. The drift of the sick is in the opposite direction now, he said, as more patients are shunning privately owned medical centres because they are prohibitively expensive. Cheap government hospitals are almost not an option, as they are mostly short of staff, medication and equipment, effects of the severe economic crisis that has crippled Zimbabwe since 2000. "Mission hospitals provide a strictly social service and are not profit-driven," said Mr Rigava, whose association represents 1,500 privately owned health service providers in Zimbabwe. Another big plus for them is that they are where the majority of the national population lives, in rural areas." Ratidzo Siwela, 36, travelled 170km from Bulawayo to St Luke's Catholic Mission Hospital in Lupane recently, where she hopes to deliver her fifth child. Her husband, a bus driver with a monthly salary of US$150 (Dh550), paid a fraction of the money he would have paid if she had visited a government hospital. He paid a consultation fee of $4, $2 per night for a bed, and a delivery charge of $5. A closer government-run hospital charges three to five times that much, she said. "But their doctors are sometimes on strike and you never know if they will be on duty the time you are in labour. Here [at St Luke's] the doctors and nurses rarely go on strike, so it inspires confidence." Like St Luke's, mission hospitals across the country get support in funding, drugs and equipment from international donors through their parent churches, most of which are based in Europe and the United States. This makes them better equipped and the quality of their services higher and cheaper compared with poorly equipped -government healthcare centres. "I am told the service is very efficient," said Pullen Gaule, 46, arriving at St Luke's recently from Tsholotsho, 80km away. "I fell off a moving ox-drawn cart and broke my arm. It was easier and faster for me to go to Bulawayo than here." Moses Chingono, a spokesman of the 126-member Zimbabwe Association of Church-related Hospitals said: "Many people are now seeking treatment at mission hospitals. We cannot turn them away. We are stretched, but we can't do anything." Alva Severengi, a doctor, said mission hospitals might also struggle if the influx continues. "For now they are coping, but I think the problem will be on infrastructure. The hospitals may not be big enough for the numbers ? The hope is the government will soon have capacity to deliver so pressure on mission hospitals eases." The Herald, a government-run daily newspaper carried a story this month about Patricia Chinyanga, a cancer patient from Harare, who recovered after getting treatment at the 130-bed Karanda Mission Hospital in Mount Darwin, in northern Zimbabwe. Ms Chinyanga underwent an operation at the Evangelical Alliance-run mission. She paid $700. A government hospital charges $3,000 for a similar operation while a private clinic would charge $6,000 or more. "Chinyanga is one witness to the many success stories from mission hospitals where treatment is affordable and medicines readily available," The Herald said. Douglas Mombeshora, the deputy minister of health, said he appreciated the work of the mission hospitals, but said they alone could not provide health care. He said the government was trying to provide more funds, equipment and human resources to its hospitals. "The economy is improving, so we hope we as a government will be able to do so, with support from our international partners." Mr Rigava said: "Church-owned hospitals have been there for long, longer than some government hospitals. Even when the politics and economy get bad, as happened last year, they kept their place." email@example.com
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