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Moscow Hospital Visit Shows Russian Children in Poor Health - 2002-10-17

Russia is conducting an ambitious campaign to assess the country's child health-care crisis. By mid-December, the government plans to have examined all of the country's 33.5 million children in an effort to improve the health-care system. A visit to the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital in Moscow shows how the campaign is progressing.

Four-and-one-half-year-old Valera Mikhailov sounds like any other little boy, singing as he plays. But he is singing from a hospital sick-room.

Valera is seriously ill, as are more than half the children in Russia. According to the government's preliminary findings, most Russian children have two or three chronic health problems by the time they leave school.

Valera suffers from a very harsh form of childhood rheumatoid arthritis that has to be treated regularly at the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital in Moscow. It is the third time he has checked in this year.

Sitting with him is five-year-old Nikita Rubin. He has a primary immune-deficiency.

Nikita lives in Siberia and has to ride three days by train to receive his treatment. He will need to be treated every month for the rest of his life.

His mother tries hard to convince herself that her son is normal. But she knows that he is not.

Mrs. Rubin says she and her husband tried twice to send their son to school, but failed. She says the first time, he ended up with pneumonia. They tried again, she says, and Nikita came down with sepsis. She now teaches him at home.

A hospital worker comes by trying to tempt the children with a meal of porridge, bread, and cabbage. "Tasty," the woman cries out, but the children seem unconvinced. Little Valera confides that the hospital food is bad, not an unusual complaint at hospitals everywhere.

All of the mothers who spoke to VOA said they are satisfied with the care this particular hospital provides for their children. But they express frustration with the level of pediatric health care overall.

Lyudmila Zuzilina, whose eight-year-old daughter has leukemia, says she thinks very few Russian children are completely healthy. She adds every child in Russia appears to have some sort of health problem. And she believes many of the problems are related to pollution and poor quality food.

Dr. Vassily Delyagin says Mrs. Zuzilina is not far off in her analysis. Dr. Delyagin heads the department conducting the pediatric research at the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital in Moscow. He says medical problems are often connected with social, state, financial, and other problems, including lack of proper food, adequate vitamins, and rest.

Dr. Delyagin says Russia's children will not get healthier without a significant effort by the government and by their parents. He says if the government and medical community manage to convince adults to change their attitudes toward their own health, the next generation will have a better chance to be healthier.

He stresses for a start, Russians need to reduce their alcohol consumption and smoking. But those problems have been around for a long time, and Dr. Delyagin acknowledges that some things are beyond a doctor's ability to control.

The chief pediatrician at the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital agrees. Dr. Alexander Rumyantsev notes that in Russia, there are many factors working against a child's health.

Dr. Rumyantsev says Russia is home to many homeless children, children being raised without a father, children with sick parents, adopted children and children who, in his words, are unlucky enough to be born into a family with problems.

He also notes that in percentage terms, state funding of the Russian health care system is now less than half of what it was during Soviet times.

He points out that in the USSR, the government set aside about four percent of the total budget for health care. Now, he says, it is about 1.7 percent. That drop in funding, he says, is a big part of the decline in the health of Russia's kids.

Despite the tough odds, Dr. Rumyantsev and countless doctors across Russia are working hard to examine the nation's children. Each child is examined by 8 to 10 specialists. Individual records are created for every child, detailing conditions and noting any further requirements for follow-up evaluations or treatments.

Results of the study will be reviewed for the first six months of next year and then recommendations will be made to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Doctors hope to forge a plan for reform and to get substantial government funding to implement it.