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Kyrgyz Prisons Hit by TB

Tuberculosis has reached epidemic proportions in Kyrgyz prisons
By Yevgeni Nurabaev

A letter written by mothers of Kyrgyz prisoners paints a brutal picture of young men jammed into overcrowded prisons and refused food or medicine as tuberculosis runs riot. Prisoners with skin clinging to their bones are told there is no money to feed or treat them. And there are fears the disease could jump prison walls and spread through the country.


The women circulated their appeal to national and international institutions and the mass media, begging for help. "We urge representatives of international and human rights organisations to visit the prisons of Kyrgyzstan and see the horrors of Kyrgyzstan torture chambers," the letter said.


"People die without food and medicines...parents are not allowed to visit


their skinny, dying sons. No medical treatment whatsoever is provided


to the sick, since medicines are very expensive and in prison hospitals they


are just not available.


"Food is scarce or non-existent. If you have any drop of compassion please help! Our children, already punished by the courts, should not die of starvation and illnesses just because there is no money."


The state budget allocates scant resources for the upkeep of prisoners and none at all for treatment of TB. Some medical specialists say the prisons of Kyrgyzstan could be nurturing a disease that will one day overwhelm the whole population.


The girlfriend of one 19-year-old prisoner told the story of his decline. "He used to be physically well developed with no health problems," she said. "About a month after being detained in the investigation wing he caught tuberculosis. This was because new arrivals were held together with chronically ill prisoners, all crammed in about 40 to a cell. Prisoners have to sleep in turns because there are not enough beds."


Not surprisingly, the disease runs riot in these conditions, affecting everyone within its reach and most of those who get no outside help quickly become emaciated and die.


Twenty-two-year-old Sergei Pogojev wrote to his mother when he was extremely ill, "Mom, I can hardly walk - I lost a lot of weight and I look in the mirror and can't recognise myself," he said. "I just look like a skeleton covered with skin. If you see me you will cry. Older men say that if I survive now, then I will live into old age. They say that if you don't die during the first year of the disease you will recover.


"I have now been ill for nine months but I have no strength left. Old prisoners who have seen all this before tell me I need to feed on animal fat and take two glasses of burdock juice on top of a glass of vodka or samogon (home made vodka). Please ask my friends to look for dog fat, or whatever they can. Mom, try to come here, Who knows what will happen to me tomorrow."


A leading tuberculosis specialist at the ministry of health, Mavliut Shakhnabiev, said lack of resources makes it hard to detect and treat the disease. "Still, we are getting medicines through the help of international organisations and this lets us keep the situation under control," he said.


Valentina Fedoseeva, chairwoman of the Issyk-Atin branch of the Kyrgyz human


rights organisation, disagreed with Shaknabiev. "How can you say the situation is under control when untreated patients are discharged from hospital because there are no medicines for them."


Fedoseeva told how on June 10 five amnestied prisoners in their early twenties were admitted to the Alamedin Tuberculosis Hospital. One died within three days, another, Anarbek Sabirov, after five. "When we arrived to visit him a day before his death," Fedoseeva said, "he was huddled in a corner without a bed or linen. He was on his knees begging for help, constantly spitting blood, hardly able to talk while doctors said they would not waste scarce medication on him because he was going to die anyway."


Doctors, meanwhile, are not optimistic about the condition of Sergei Pogojev, who is being kept alive by an artificial respirator.


When his mother Anna last visited her son, he asked her to bring him some chicken to eat. Her schoolteacher's salary of 16 US dollars is not enough to feed her family of three and she is already deep in debt. "Of course, I bought food for my son, but after that my family almost starved for a week. I asked one of our deputies to help but humanitarian aid for the entire school is limited to 13,000 soms (60 US dollars) and I received only a few drops of medicine to treat tuberculosis."


Kyrgyzstan's economy has been in crisis for some 10 years since the collapse of the old Soviet empire. The resulting hardships have had a direct impact on health and in recent years tuberculosis had become a major problem.


Latest UN data presents a gloomy picture. It says more than 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty level. It is amid such poverty that tuberculosis flourishes.


Experts say it will take five more years and a heavy increase in expenditure to bring tuberculosis under control. They warn that failure to tackle the disease in prisons will inevitably lead to a wider epidemic among the population.


Yevgeni Nurabaev is a journalist with the news and analysis agency InfoCentre Bishkek


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