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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death Rate for Infants Is Higher Than Stated

ROME -- Infant mortality rates in many Caucasus and Central Asian countries are much higher than reported by their governments, UNICEF said Tuesday, expressing alarm over what it called a hidden crisis there.

A report, by UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy, found one of the widest discrepancies in Azerbaijan, where the estimated rate was 74 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births vs. an official rate of 17 per 1,000.

"Our report found that official statistics in the Caucasus and Central Asia hide the gravity of the crisis, suggesting instead that progress on infant mortality has been steady and continuous," UNICEF's executive director, Carol Bellamy, told a news conference.

"Flawed statistics are a danger to children. They inspire complacency, keeping governments and health workers and even parents in the dark on the true nature of the threats to child survival," she said.

UNICEF compared hospital records with birth and death registries. Also, mothers, in a random sampling, were interviewed in their homes.

Other countries surveyed with estimated infant mortality rates much higher than official numbers included Tajikistan (89 vs. 47), Turkmenistan (74 vs. 33), Kazakhstan (62 vs. 24), Kyrgyzstan (61 vs. 29), Uzbekistan (49 vs. 30), Georgia (43 vs. 16) and Armenia (36 vs. 15). Bellamy said infant mortality rates in the Caucasus and Central Asia are more than double those in Latin America and far higher than in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Official infant mortality rates in the two other countries surveyed either had much narrower or virtually negligible differences: Romania (32 vs. 21) and Ukraine (16 vs. 14). In comparison, the report cited an infant mortality rate in industrial nations in 2000 of 4.8.

The report blamed underreporting in large part on differences in how countries define infant mortality.

Several of the countries surveyed, said UNICEF officials, still use the Soviet-era definition, which requires medical personnel to disregard all signs of life at birth except breathing and to routinely classify babies that are born very prematurely as stillborn.

By contrast, the World Health Organization, another UN agency, says an infant is alive at birth if there are other signs of life, such as a heartbeat or muscle movement.

The survey also found that hardships of traveling to the nearest civil registration center sometimes meant births -- and deaths -- of infants go unreported.

UNICEF official Gaspar Fajth said so many children die in their first year because their mothers are in poor health. Doctors in the region were generally well-trained under the Soviet system, he said, but with the collapse of state-health systems, many find themselves prescribing medicine parents cannot afford.

Families from developed nations have been pouring into former communist countries to adopt children, many of whose parents could no longer care for them after the state social-security network largely collapsed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Adoptions can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and some of that money often goes to "facilitators," local people who try to cut through red tape. The reports said some experts fear international adoption is "being transformed from a child-centered welfare measure of last resort into a revenue-raising activity."