Sick Babies Add to Chechen Woes

By Amina Visaeva GROZNY, Chechnya, October 21, 2005 (ENS) - The arrival of a new baby at Grozny’s Central Maternity Hospital is often far from the joyous occasion it should be. Babies are born sick more often now than ever before, some made ill by the effects of environmental contamination.

Doctors say more than half the babies delivered there have serious illnesses - that’s around 1,100 in the first half of 2005 alone. Nationwide, the statistics are just as grim, with every fifth baby born with health problems such as pneumonia or defects of the heart and nervous system.

For the past 10 years, the small Russian republic of Chechnya has been fighting a fierce and bloody battle for independence.

Over these years, premature babies have become increasingly common in Chechnya.

“One and a half kilograms is a weight which no longer surprises doctors,” said Bela Nukhaeva, head of the children’s ward of the Central Maternity Hospital in Grozny.

babies

Babies in Chechnya are born imperfect more and more often. (Photo courtesy Aliasoft)
“In recent years, the pattern of illnesses among newborn babies has been dramatically different from the situation 10 years ago.”

The hospital’s head doctor, Zargan Mutsaeva, added, “There has been an alarming increase in figures for pathologies of newborn babies. In the first half of this year, 39 children were born with congenital developmental abnormalities. That’s a huge number.”

Statistics from the Chechen health ministry suggest that one percent of all newborns succumb to their illnesses, though officials admit the real figure is probably much higher as many deaths go unreported by grief-stricken parents.

Environmental pollution is seen as a major health hazard for expectant mothers.

In the region around Grozny, for example, rising cancer rates among pregnant women are blamed on a radioactive waste burial site in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt.

In the Kurchaloi region, health experts say that women’s involvement in makeshift - and illegal - oil-refining is responsible for a rise in babies born with mental handicaps.

In the Shali and Gudermes regions, the debris left over from years of conflict, which was especially intense here, is being blamed for a rise in childhood illness.

All too often, problems are only detected after birth, as many pregnant women cannot afford regular checkups. Even if they could, gynecological clinics are few and far between in Chechnya’s ailing health system. The days when women were examined by a district doctor from the first weeks of pregnancy up until birth are in the past.

Razeta Dachaeva from the Urus-Martan region went to Grozny to see a doctor for the first time in her fifth month.

“There is no women’s consultation office in our region, and I can’t afford to go to the city,” she said. “A relative who has a car took me there. And this was the only chance to be examined in Grozny. They told me I needed treatment at the pathology ward. But I’d need money to go there, and we don’t have any at home.

“If I go to hospital, it will be a heavy burden for the relatives who have to come to visit me, buy food and borrow money. Given the unemployment situation here, not everyone can afford treatment.”

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This baby, held here by her grandmother, was born on a pig farm in Ingushetia, where her family was seeking temporary shelter. Her family had been forced to flee their home in Chechnya. (Photo courtesy International Rescue Committee)
As a result, hospitals are often unprepared when women with potentially life-threatening conditions like anemia come in to give birth. Experts say most Chechen women are anamic, which can mean higher blood loss during labor.

Madina Karaeva went into premature labor after working too hard around her home. She was anemic but had not seen a doctor during her pregnancy and had therefore taken no medication. As a result, when she went into labor, she lost so much blood she almost died.

Lyubov Dudaeva, deputy head doctor at the Central Maternity Hospital, said, “Anemic women give birth to weak children. And this risk group is susceptible to other illnesses.”

Compounding the problem is a serious lack of pediatricians in Chechnya, with some hospitals employing only 60 or 70 percent of the number they need. Meanwhile, facilities to treat sick babies, such as one located at a former holiday camp in the Grozny suburb of Chernoreche, are ill-equipped and unsuitable for the task.

However, the real root of the problem, experts say, is the poor health of mothers, which is causing a chain-reaction of ill health in the next generation.

Chechen Education Minister Sultan Alimkhajiev, whose mandate includes looking after mothers as well as children, estimates that more than 70 percent of those giving birth have serious illnesses of their own. He blames their poor health on low standards of living, poor nutrition and high unemployment.

Chechnya's quest for autonomy has sparked two wars between rebel fighters and federal Russian forces, testing Russia's tenuous hold on the mountainous republic. The war has cost tens of thousands of Chechen and Russian lives and has reduced much of the region, especially Chechnya's capital, Grozny, to ruins.

{This report is published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Amina Visaeva is a correspondent for "Vecherniy Grozny."}