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In a district rural hospital in Uganda, 850 surgical patients were evaluated prospectively over a 3-year period to compare the clinical efficacy of conventional postoperative penicillin therapy with single-dose ampicillin prophylaxis for hernia repair and ectopic pregnancy, and with single-dose ampicillin-metronidazole prophylaxis for hysterectomy and caesarean section. The high rate of postoperative infection usually encountered in African hospitals after conventional treatment with penicillin for 7 days was significantly reduced with the new regimen: from 7.5 to 0 per cent in hernia repair and from 10.7 to 2.4 per cent in ectopic pregnancy; from 20.0 to 3.4 per cent in hysterectomy and from 38.2 to 15.2 per cent in caesarean section. Length of hospital stay and postoperative mortality rates were also significantly reduced. Single-dose ampicillin prophylaxis with or without metronidazole, although rarely used in developing countries, is more cost effective than standard penicillin treatment.