Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sick Babies Add to Chechen Woes

Mothers are passing on a legacy of illness to their children.
By Amina Visaeva

The arrival of a new baby at Grozny’s Central Maternity Hospital is often far from the joyous occasion it should be.

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.

Premature babies have become increasingly common.

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

“In recent years, the pattern of illnesses among newborn babies has been dramatically different from the situation ten 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 per cent 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.

Compounding the problem is a serious lack of pediatricians in Chechnya, with some hospitals employing only 60 or 70 per cent 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 per cent 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.

Environmental pollution is also 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 check ups. Even if they could, gynaecological 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 firmly 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.”

As a result, hospitals are often unprepared when women with potentially life-threatening conditions like anaemia come in to give birth. Experts say most Chechen women are anaemic, which can mean higher blood loss during labour.

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

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

Amina Visaeva is a correspondent for Vecherniy Grozny.

More IWPR's Global Voices