Major infectious diseases: degree of risk: intermediate. Food or waterborne diseases: bacterial diarrhea. Vectorborne disease: tickborne encephalitis.Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in Russia; it poses a negligible risk with extremely rare cases possible among US citizens who have close contact with birds (2013). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, diphtheria dysentery, pneumonia and bronchitis are all killers in Russia. The rates of these disease are much higher than they were in the Communist era. Experts blame the increases in these disease on poor medical care, overcrowding and poor sanitation. Some 40 percent of Russians suffered from high blood pressure and 26 percent are obese. Fake cognac is blamed from causing a lot of illnesses.

The poor quality of air and water in many areas and the prevalence of heavy smoking and alcohol use (especially among men) exacerbate the overall poor health of the nation. Preventive health care is a low priority. The medical conditions most frequently causing death are cardiovascular disease (the cause of more than half of deaths), cancer, respiratory diseases, and diabetes. In the early 2000s, declining health care and housing standards led to increases in communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and cholera. Among children, poor nutrition has increased the incidence of anemia, stomach ulcers, endocrine disorders, and iodine deficiency. The mortality rate for traffic accidents is nearly twice the rate in Western Europe, and in 2005 some 36,000 people died from alcohol abuse. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

Increasing Rates of Disease in Russia in the 1990s

Partly because of low budget allocations for health, in 1997 new reports indicated that Russia's health crisis was worsening. Although the life expectancy for males increased from 57.3 years to 59.6 years between 1994 and 1996, the drinking and smoking habits of Russians, together with continued air pollution in many areas, kept mortality rates from cardiac and circulatory diseases more than twice as high as those in the United States. The incidence of infectious and parasitic diseases continued to increase. Although a major diphtheria vaccination program in 1995-96 radically reduced the incidence of that disease, tuberculosis cases increased sharply, especially in Russia's prisons. In 1997 the minister of health predicted that sexual promiscuity and drug addiction would cause 800,000 new cases of HIV infection by the year 2000. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

By the mid-1990s, Russia's death rate had reached its highest peacetime level in the twentieth century. Curable infectious diseases such as diphtheria and measles have reached epidemic levels unseen since the Bolshevik Revolution, and the rates of tuberculosis, cancer, and heart disease are the highest of any industrialized country. In 1993 the incidence of a number of infectious diseases increased significantly over the previous year: tuberculosis by 1.25 times, brucellosis by 1.9 times, diphtheria by 3.9 times, and syphilis by 2.6 times. In 1995 the Russian health system was overwhelmed by the return of epidemic diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever, even as it faced chronic staff and equipment shortages. *

In the winter of 1995-96, Russia suffered its most severe epidemic of influenza in decades. An estimated 1 million people were infected in Moscow alone, and numerous schools and public institutions were closed to prevent the spread of the disease. Experts attributed the virulence of the epidemic to the generally low level of resistance of much of the Russian population, the result of poor overall health care and stressful economic conditions. Other causes were the uneven availability of influenza shots and the population's general belief that injections enhance rather than decrease an individual's chances of becoming ill. *

Cancer and Heart Disease in Russia

In a study of 140 countries in the early 2000s, Russia had the world's second highest mortality rates for cardiovascular diseases, cancer and infectious diseases. Though the cancer rate is lower in Russia than in the United States, the rate of death from cancer is higher. In 1999, 2,355,658 Russians died from cardiovascular disease. About 25 percent of the cases are believed to be smoking related. The same year, 63,092 Russians died from lung or throat cancer. About 90 percent of the cases are believed to be smoking related.

Between 1980 and 1989, cancer and its complications increased from 15 percent to 18 percent among causes of death. In 1990 the most common types of cancer were breast cancer, cancer of the stomach and liver, and skin cancer. In the last years of the Soviet Union, about 680,000 new cases were diagnosed annually. The causes of cancer are varied and complex, but contributing factors in Russia are heavy smoking, radiation exposure, and contact with pervasive toxic emissions and chemicals in soil, food, and water. According to the deputy minister of environmental protection and natural resources, about 50 percent of all cancer-related illnesses can be attributed to environmental factors. Heavy-manufacturing regions show especially high rates; in Noril'sk, the metallurgical center located above the Arctic Circle, the incidence of lung cancer among males is the highest in the world.

Tuberculosis in Russia

Russia has one of the world's highest tuberculosis rates. Cases of TB per 100,000 people in the ear;y 2000s: Russia, 56.7; Japan, 34.3; China 29.7; Germany 15.0' Britain, 10.6; the United States, 8.7. In the 1990s about 100,000 Russians died of the disease and 2 million may have had it. Russian health officials turned down a $150 million World Bank load to fight AIDS and tuberculosis because they objected to certain conditions of the loan.

Russia is a "hot zone" of drug-resistant tuberculosis along with India, Latvia, Estonia, the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ivory Coast. Some 2 to 14 percent of all cases are drug-resistant. This works out to more than 100,000 cases. Drug-resistant tuberculosis can be contacted by simply standing close to an infected person. The problem is blamed on the fact that some infected people do not finish the full course of antibiotics, allowing drug-resistant strains to develop through mutation.

Tuberculosis has spread particularly fast among Russia’s prison population. In the 1990s it was is estimated that around 50 percent of all Russian prisoners were infected with tuberculosis and the rate of the disease in Russia's prisons was believed to be 20 to 60 times higher than the general population. Many prisoners have drug-resistant tuberculosis. As they are released they spread he disease to the general population. There is a risk that an epidemic might occur. Prisoners released while still contagious with TB infect 10 to 15 victims each a year. After they are released they no longer quarantined or compelled to take their medication. There are some programs in which prisoners are carefully observed taking their medicine.

Infectious Diseases in Russia

Russia has an epidemic of hepatitis. Hepatitis B and C, which are transmitted through the blood and sexual activity, have risen especially fast. The leading cause of death in Russian hospitals is a drug resistant bacteria. Some 28,672 cases of measles were reported n 1994. A total of 152 cases of polio were reported in 1995.

Some 35,716 cases of diphtheria were reported in 1995. The number of cases in St. Petersburg jumped from 12 to 845 between 1990 and 1992. Diphtheria was virtually unknown in Europe in 1980. Today 90 percent of the world's diphtheria cases are in Russia, the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Germany and Norway. There have been outbreaks of diphtheria on Yekaterinburg.

Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in Russia. In July and August 2005, there was an out break bird flu (the H5N1 strain of influenza) in several villages in western Siberia that spread westward into villages in the Urals. It was the first outbreak of the disease in Russia. Areas were quarantined. Thousands of birds were killed before it was brought under control. There were no human cases of the disease, which is thought to have been brought in by migratory birds from Southeast Asia. There were worries that migrating birds night spread the disease to Europe and the Middle East.

Cholera was are during the Soviet period but after the collapse of the Soviet Union here have been cholera outbreaks in the Far East and in Dagestan and Volgagrad. The outbreaks were blamed on declining living standards and sanitary conditions, There were outbreaks of cholera in late summer in 1992 and 1993. In the summer of 1994, more than 1,000 cases of cholera were reported in Dagestan. More than 20 people died. Officials quarantined the area and believed the

In southwest Russia in 1999, a strange disease appeared that caused a high fever and uncontrolled bleeding. Hanta virus, which is carried by East Asian rodents, has infected Russia, China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Plague and Small Pox and Russia

In the Soviet Union, a deadly form of the plague continued to be carried by burrowing rodents called marmots. For decades authorities tried to eliminate the disease by killing marmots by poisoning food left out for them with chloropicrin. The marmots were tough and resilient. They—and the disease—always managed to come back. Ultimately the government decided the poisoning caused “unjustifiable harm to nature” and was ended.

The United States and Russia are the only places that have kept the smallpox virus. Smallpox has been eliminated around the world. Only two samples of disease remain: one in Moscow and the other in Atlanta. At one time smallpox was one of the leading global killers. Entire races of people were dispatched by it in America, where the disease was imported by Europeans. There is currently a debate on whether or not the disease should be saved for study, or wiped off the face of the earth.

In 1971, three people—two infants and a young woman—died and 43,000 people were vaccinated for small pox after a biological weapon test. The outbreak occurred in Aralsk, a port on the Aral Sea in what is now Kazakhstan after a ship doing research on fish in the Aral Sea passed too close (15 kilometers) to the site of a small pox test. A 24-year-old female researcher on the ship carried small pox back to Aralsk and got sick. The stain of small pox used in the test was unusually potent. Six people who were vaccinated still got sick. Four others got ill. The two children that died were less than one year old. The woman who died was a school teacher.

Drinking and Poor Health in Russia

Binge drinking is regarded as the primary cause of the decline in the life expectancy of Russian men since the early 1990s. Two thirds of Russia men die drunk, whether from an accident, heart attack or suicide. Many die on Monday at the end of a long weekend of drinking. Under the anti-alcohol campaign of Mikhail Gorbachev in the later 1990s, when vodkas became more expensive and harder to get, life expectancy rose sharply in just three years.

Russia's high rate of alcohol consumption is a major contributor to the country's health crisis, as well as to low job productivity. Rated as Russia's third most critical health problem after cardiovascular diseases and cancer, alcoholism has reached epidemic proportions, particularly among males. In the twentieth century, periodic government campaigns against alcohol consumption have resulted in thousands of deaths from the consumption of alcohol surrogates. The latest such campaign was undertaken from 1985 to 1988, during the regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91). Although some authorities credited reduced alcohol consumption with a concurrent drop in Russia's mortality rate, by 1987 the production of samogon (home-brewed liquor) had become a large-scale industry that provided alcohol to Russians while depriving the state of tax revenue. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

A 1995 Russian study found that regular drunkenness affected between 25 and 60 percent of blue-collar workers and 21 percent of white-collar workers, with the highest incidence found in rural areas. Because alcohol remains cheap relative to food and other items, and because it is available in most places day and night, unemployed people are especially prone to drunkenness and alcohol poisoning. Alcohol consumption among pregnant women is partly responsible for Russia's rise in infant mortality, birth defects, and childhood disease and abnormalities. *

Alcohol-Related Deaths in Russia

Each year alcoholic kills about 200,000 people in Russia. Around 160,000 people die from alcohol-related illnesses. Another 40,000 die from alcohol-related accidents, suicides, fatal falls, and poisonings. Police said that 43 percent of murders committed in the Moscow area in 1997 were somehow connected with alcohol.

Every winter drunks pass out during freezing cold night and die from exposure. Many drunks freeze to death after they collapse in a snow drift, sometimes with bottles still in their hands. Some bodies lie undiscovered until the spring thaw.

Drunk Russians die from choking on their vomit and falling out of windows. In some Siberian villages people freeze to death in the winter because the get so drunk they can't cut or carry the firewood needed to keep the, warm.

In 1994 some 53,000 people died of alcohol poisoning, an increase of about 36,000 since 1991. If vodka is unavailable or unaffordable, Russians sometimes imbibe various combinations of dangerous substances. The Russian media often report poisonings that result from consumption of homemade alcohol substitutes. Production of often-substandard alcohol has become a widespread criminal activity in the 1990s, further endangering consumers.

In 1999, about 30,000 people died from alcohol poisoning after drinking low-quality, illegal vodka and other alcoholic drinks. This was down from 32,000 in 1998 and 43,000 people in 1997. By comparison only about 300 people die a year from alcohol poisoning in the United States. The poisonings often result from impurities or distilling too soon.

Drunk Drowning in Russia

Roughly 17,000 Russians, most of them drunk, die from drowning in Russia each year. According to official statistic, 16,157 people drowned in 1998 and 20,458 drowned in 1995. The annual drowning rate in Russia is 8 per 100,000 (compared to 1.68 per thousand in the United States). The majority of the victims are men who drowned when they were drunk.

Hundreds of drink people drown in the Moscow River every year. In July 2001, 219 people died, including 18 on a single steaming hot Saturday, and around 90 percent were drunk when they died. One Moscow doctor told AFP, "The situation on the beaches gets worse in the evenings as Muscovites come to bathe after work. For some drinking beer has become a tradition."

A diver who fishes the bodies out of the Moscow River told the Washington Post, "The typical thing is for people to drink, swim, and decide to take a rest. A lifeguard who rescued a 53-year-old unconscious man told the Baltimore Sun, "He was drunk and he tried to swim across the lake." Many drunk men also die after falling threw the ice while ice fishing in the winter.

Handicapped and Mentally Iil in Russia

In Russia and much of the former Soviet Union people with disabilities are stigmatized. Russia has a long tradition of hiding the handicapped, after World War II, soldiers with amputated limbs were exiled to Valaam Island, north of St. Petersburg. The government has traditionally encouraged families to send disabled children to an institution rather than providing them with money to care for them at home.

Facilities for the disabled, of whom about 6 million reside in Russia, fall far below Western standards. Wheelchairs and artificial limbs are in very short supply, rehabilitation centers are few, and wheelchair ramps are virtually nonexistent. A 1995 law, On the Social Protection of Disabled Persons in the Russian Federation, provides for a wide range of benefits and services, including equal access to education, employment, transportation, and services. The law requires businesses to set aside at least 3 percent of their jobs for the disabled. However, no funding was available for any of the law's programs in 1996. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

According to 2001 health statistics, 300 people per 100,000 were diagnosed mental disorders. During the 1990s, the number of people with mental disorders increased 1.5 times. In Soviet era the number of mentally ill was 200 people per 100,000. The most rapid increases have occurred among young children and teenagers. Access to alcohol and drugs have been seen as a major reason why. Alcohol-related psychotic conditions strike four times as many youngsters as they did in the Soviet era.

Poor Treatment Handicapped Children in Russia

In the 1990s an estimated 29,000 mentally handicapped children classified as "idiots," imbeciles" or "ineducable" were been placed in 148 institutions where in some cases they were tied to beds with sheets, left in straitjacket on linoleum floors, penned up in wooden shelters, and handcuffed to benches.

Some of the children were given so little to eat that they were too thin and weak to stand up. Eight-year-olds sometimes weighed as much as 15-month-old infants. Almost a fifth of the children never got out of bed and some rocked and back and forth all day, a sign of lack of stimulation. If all this isn't tragic enough many have been misdiagnosed and were not mentally retarded at all but are normal children who had no one to properly care for them.

A nurse at one of the facilities told Newsweek, "They live like kings here...They're fed four times a day, they're washed. We're the ones who have to figure out how to get money for food." Reporters from the Washington Post visited one institution with at most 100 children where 16 orphans between the ages of 4 and 15 died during a nine month period in 1998. The causes of death were listed as “deficiencies incompatible with life."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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