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Official Statistics Undercount Infant Mortality in Ex-Soviet States, says UNICEF - 2003-07-22

The United Nations Children's Fund says child mortality in nine countries of the former Soviet Union is much higher than government statistics show. The death rate of children under one year of age has reached alarming levels in those countries.

UNICEF says nations in Central Asia and the Caucuses are experiencing a child survival crisis. It says the infant death rate there is five times higher than in the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, and 12 times greater than in western industrialized countries.

Regional Communication's Officer for UNICEF Robert Cohen says the infant mortality rate in these countries is approaching death tolls in sub-Saharan Africa.

"This report is a wake-up call to both the governments and publics of those countries, but also to the international community to come together to prevent this slow motion catastrophe that is affecting so many thousands of children, whose deaths could be prevented," said Mr. Cohen.

The study examines the situation of children in the 27 countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. According to official figures, 60,000 babies died before their first birthday in 2001, but UNICEF says the true number is much higher.

UNICEF says the inaccurate and misleading statistics are a legacy of the past. For instance, it notes the communist system stressed the need to keep infant mortality low. Hospitals and medical staff faced penalties if they reported increases in infant deaths.

As a result, it says, hospitals sometimes reported the deaths of babies in their care as miscarriages or stillbirths. Mr. Cohen said poverty is the leading cause of death. "Secondly, you have health systems that have taken a beating - under-funded, lack of training, lack of drugs," he said. "The health system has undergone the trauma of transition, and is in need of increased support. And, then there is, of course, the malnutrition causes. Mothers during pregnancy not having proper nutrition, not having the support they need, [including] prenatal checks."

UNICEF is calling on the Eastern European governments to acknowledge the problem, and take action to reduce infant mortality. It says they should adopt measures to improve the well-being of mothers and children, investment in basic and preventive health care and upgrade the skills of medical staff.