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CHOLERA STRAINS HEALTH SYSTEM IN S. RUSSIA

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A cholera epidemic in southern Russia is straining a health-care system already at the breaking point.

Nearly 700 people have caught the highly infectious water-borne disease in recent weeks. All but a handful are in Dagestan, where indoor plumbing and clean drinking water are scarce. Seventeen people have died.The government has dispatched medical teams to examine thousands of people, has quarantined infected areas, and has tested water in lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

The epidemic couldn't have come at a worse time. The 1991 Soviet collapse hit the medical system like a wrecking ball. Health spending has plummeted, and the sudden demise of central control has left local health officials floundering.

"It's much harder now to fight an epidemic than it would have been before," Irina Yeramova, deputy medical director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies office in Moscow said Wednesday.

The Soviet system was never all it was cracked up to be. It "succeeded in only one thing - creating the myth that it was the best," pathologist Vladimir Pchelin wrote in an article headlined "View from the Morgue" published Wednesday in the newspaper Novaya Yezhednevnaya Gazeta.

"Yes, we were ahead of the rest of the planet in the number of doctors and hospital beds. Quality of treatment didn't count," he wrote.

Now things are even worse. "Now they have no money," Yeramova said.