State's Child Health Plan Under Fire

Renowned pediatrician Leonid Roshal on Thursday accused the government of fudging infant mortality statistics and proposing inefficient programs for improving child health care.

Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov told a Cabinet meeting that the infant mortality rate had fallen in the last five years. In 2005, there were 11 deaths of children less than 1 year old per 1,000 live births, he said. That figure is twice as high as the European average, but down from 12.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2003.

Roshal countered that if Russia counted live births of children weighing less than 500 grams, as is done in the West, the infant mortality rate would nearly double, to 20 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Zurabov later conceded to journalists that the government registered only newborns weighing at least one kilogram, and that children weighing 500 grams were often classified as late-term miscarriages instead of births.

Last month, Roshal, who oversees health care issues in the Public Chamber, accused the government of "varnishing reality" rather than coming up with workable solutions.

Roshal told the Cabinet that "Russia's Children," a federal program proposed by Zurabov for 2007 to 2010, would not help to reduce infant mortality. The program does not allocate sufficient funds for equipping maternity wards with intensive care facilities or for creating new prenatal care centers, he said. Russia must double its intensive care capacity for children and build 270 local prenatal care centers at a cost of 776 billion rubles ($28.7 billion), Roshal said. He added that Zurabov's program did not earmark enough money to achieve these goals.

Zurabov said 20 new, European-standard prenatal care centers would be built soon as part of the program. He also promised that pregnant women would receive free medicine and vitamins as of next year.

The "Russia's Children" program is meant to boost Russia's dwindling population, currently shrinking by some 700,000 per year, and to improve children's health. Only 30 percent of Russian children are currently born healthy, according to a Cabinet statement.

As part of the "Russia's Children" program, Zurabov also proposed creating a database of gifted children in order to provide a better upbringing and targeted support for gifted youngsters.

Other program goals include improving juvenile crime prevention, integrating disabled children into society and placing orphans in families.