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13 Oct, 2007 02:49

Baby's death reopens demographic debate

The tragic case of a premature baby mistakenly pronounced dead by doctors in the Urals Region has shocked the nation. It has also reopened the debate about Russia's falling birthrate. Questions are now being asked about whether practices in maternity war

Eleven in 1,000 children die in their first year of life, with most those dying in their first week. But some children don't even make into the statistics.

If a baby weighs less than 500 grams, the medical profession doesn't even bother to give it postnatal incubation.  So, a few grams can be the difference between life and death.

The story of baby Sergey 

Such was the case with little Sergey Urasov.  Doctors determined he was dead even before he was brought into the world.

Evgeny and Svetlana Urasov planned their baby for five years and even came up with a name for him – Serezha.

But their dream didn't come true. Sergey's father Evgeny explained what happened.

“My wife's pregnancy was running smoothly, everything was fine. Then at 24 weeks she was taken to hospital with sharp pains. The next morning she called me and said she had a miscarriage and I had to come to pick up our baby's body,” said Evgeny Urasov.

However, this wasn’t the only shock the young couple would experience. When Evegeny came to the hospital, he was given the body wrapped in a plastic bag. And all of a sudden he heard crying coming from the package.

“When I heard it I lost control. I started running around screaming for somebody to help my child. I came up to everyone, but everyone ignored me. I said help, I've got a live baby here,” recalls Evgeny.

Evgeny eventually managed to persuade doctors to give the baby emergency treatment. But 72 hours later the child died.

The blame game

At the hospital, the couple were told that the birth was far too premature for the baby to have survived. 

Staff blamed the mother for the miscarriage. They said she didn't look after her health.

“In the course of her pregnancy, the woman came to us only once.  We detected illness and prescribed treatment for her. But she never came back. After she had a miscarriage the foetus had no signs of life – no heartbeat, no pulse, no breathing. That's why according to procedures we declared it still-born,” says Anna Starodumova, Head Doctor of clinic.

Demographic time bomb

The story became headline news, reviving the debate about Russia's falling population. For the past 15 years the country has been experiencing what many describe as a demographic crisis. A huge gap between death and birth rates has led to an annual population decline of around 700,000.

The Government launched a programme to reverse the trend. They put more money into the healthcare system and offered mothers more financial help to meet childcare costs.  So far, improvements to the birth rate have been microscopic.

Attention is now being focused on the medical profession, to see if attitudes and practices in maternity care are contributing to the demographic decline. There's growing concern that doctors may be neglecting their duties.

“A woman was about to give birth, but for some reason doctors simply forgot about her lying on the table. She lay for 10 hours, before they performed surgery and the child died. And we see such cases pretty often,” said lawyer Lana Sukhareva.

But the attitudes of some future mothers are also an issue.  Many are more concerned with keeping their lifestyle than having healthy babies. 

“Many women especially the poor simply don’t eat properly. And smoking and drinking is very widespread among pregnant women,” Dr. Leonid Rybakovsky from Russian Academy of Scientists says.

Locals in the small town of Verkhniy Ufaley agree. They believe factors relating to diet, smoking and drinking may have contributed to the ordeal of the Urasov family.

Dr Starodumova admits and regrets her staff's failure to comply with best medical practice. She says it was wrong for a nurse to give the dead foetus to the father in the first place.  But she insists that her employees did everything to save the child.

Searching for answers

Evgeny knows that the Prosecutor's office hasn't yet found any evidence of criminal negligence on the part of the doctors.  Staring at his son's freshly-dug grave, he says he wants to bring those responsible to justice. But he understands that this won't bring his son back.

The story shocked the little town of Verkhniy Ufaley. And while society is trying to decide who's guilty and who's innocent, the debate about Russia's falling birthrate goes on. 

But people are now asking who bears the greater responsibility: parents or doctors.