Life or death for Russian children

Arthur Hartman

March 03, 1992|By Arthur Hartman

NO ASPECT of the cataclysmic economic breakdown afflicting the former Soviet people cries out for help as poignantly as the probable fate of millions of children, should the West not give them emergency medical aid.

Americans can trust that U.S. medical professionals who administer vaccinations and medications are competent, that hospitals and clinics are sanitary, the needles sterile, the drugs safe.

Parents in the former Soviet Union do not have this assurance. The new commonwealth can produce only 15 to 20 percent of the medical supplies it needs, and it does not have enough hard currency to import them. In addition, a frighteningly large proportion of medical personnel are not well trained. Most hospitals are filthy, dark and cold. Equipment breaks down and cannot be replaced.

Aid is forthcoming, but the need is so great that more is required. America is joining other industrialized democracies in helping at governmental and private levels. Through the U.S. Provide Hope project, planes are taking supplies to the new commonwealth. Now, through the privately run Russian Winter Campaign, American governors are mobilizing to send at least one planeload each (about 100 tons per trip) of medicine and food in the next 60 to 90 days.

Beginning next week, Soviet and U.S. military cargo planes will transport some supplies, with the U.S. government supporting the effort by covering fuel and transportation costs. When all is said and done, the private sector will probably end up delivering twice the amount of needed relief as the U.S. government.

At stake is not just saving human lives, but strengthening democracy in the new commonwealth. The medical conditions, and the critical need they reflect, indicate a deeper political healing process that must take place.

Health care facilities are contributing to the spread of hepatitis B and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Because of shortages, medical workers are forced to re-use syringes and needles, and they lack sterilization equipment. Because of this, parents are choosing not to have their children immunized. Moreover, the World Health Organization recently tested the 40 vaccines produced in the commonwealth and found 27 of them to be "unfit for human or animal use." Vaccines are often stored past their effective dates and without refrigeration.

According to Murray Feshbach, professor of population studies at Georgetown University, 95 percent of a population must be vaccinated against a disease to prevent an epidemic. Soviet children, many already suffering from vitamin deficiency and the effects of environmental degradation, are vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease. We know that in 1989 one-quarter of Soviet children who should have been vaccinated against polio were not; one-fifth were not immunized against diphtheria, and one-third did not get a whooping cough vaccination.

The incidence of infectious diseases in the former Soviet Union is already much higher than in the West. Some 120,000 new cases of tuberculosis have been reported annually in the Soviet Union. In 1990, 312 people were reported to have developed polio, a disease virtually wiped out in the U.S. Seven hundred cases of diphtheria were reported in Moscow alone in 1990, compared with one to three cases a year in the entire United States. A breakdown in sanitation may be responsible for more deaths related to paratyphoid, typhoid and hepatitis A.

The people of the former Soviet Union have inspired the world with their courage in struggling to create a stable democracy out of the ruin of communism. These same people need our assistance now to help them keep their children alive and healthy.

To balk at providing assistance at a time of desperate need could doom the fragile democracy and the peaceful world order. The children of the former Soviet Union, to whom we can give the gift of life, and our own children, to whom we can give the gift of peace, deserve no less.

Arthur Hartman, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1981 to 1988, is a member of the Russian Winter Campaign international committee.

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