Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Newborn Death Rate Now Five Times Higher in Russia than in Europe

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 17 – Even as the Moscow trumpets an uptick in the number of births in 2008, Russian medical experts report that illness among Russian newborns increased by five percent over the same period, that only one Russian newborn in ten is fully healthy, and that the death rate among them is now five times that of this cohort in European countries.
Those were just some of the depressing figures Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and the deputy chairman of the Duma Health Committee, noted yesterday during a national forum on “The Health of Children is the Foundation of the Health of the Nation” (www.gzt.ru/society/2009/02/16/223031.html).
Kolesnikov, who is a member of the ruling United Russia Party, blamed these trends on the lack of adequate prenatal and perenatal care and said that existing legislation intended to protect sick children and their mothers was inadequate and simply “not working” to ensure a healthy society.
The Duma deputy said that a lack of funding was the main reason for this trend: “Problems [with prevention and cure],” he said, “are growing, and if they are to be addressed, then the country will have to devote greater resources.” If that does not happen, then any gain in the birthrate in Russia will be undercut by increases in deaths among newborns.
While some speakers at the meeting, like Gennady Onishchenko, the country’s public health chief, were somewhat more optimistic, others issued even more dire warnings about the consequences of the rising number of deaths among newborns not only for the families involved but also for the country’s national security.
Tatyana Yakovleva, who also serves on the Duma’s Health Committee, said that the recent increase in the number of births – which she said had amounted to 12 percent last year, a figure higher than others have given -- would be meaningless unless Russia created a reliable system of prenatal and perenatal care, something she said does not now exist.
And unless it is created, Yakovleva continued, “soon there won’t be anyone available to serve in the army.” Not only will perenatal deaths reduce future cohorts of draftees, but early childhood illnesses cast a shadow on the health of 18-year-olds, few of whom are in good condition now, with more than one in three suffering from severe medical problems.
Both perenatal problems and the development of various medical conditions during childhood that often follow, she continued, help to explain why approximately five million Russian families are infertile, not to speak of the many Russian couples who for whatever reason decide not to have children.
One of the biggest problems in this sector of medicine, other participants in the meeting said, is the lack of personnel. There are not enough pediatricians “even in Moscow,” the level of research on these topics is “low,” and the children’s sections of polyclinics are poorly equipped. As a result, many doctors trained as pediatricians leave the field one way or another.
Some regional governments have adopted laws on protecting mothers and newborns which “take into account local situations,” Yakovleva said. But most simply have duplicated the provisions of federal laws which, in practice, they do not spend enough money to do what even that legislation calls for.
Participants at yesterday’s session urged that the Duma amend the existing laws and provide more money for this field, especially now when the economic crisis is leaving many regional and local governments without the resources to protect the health of mothers and their children.
But it does not appear that the Russian government is prepared to make the kind of investments those involved in this area say are needed. Kolesnikov said that the United Russia Party plans to seek a ban on advertising for abortions and new ads against smoking, programs that will help but hardly solve the problems he and the others at the session described.

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