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Don't Ban Western Medical Supplies, Russian Patients Plead

Amid controversial scenes of banned Western food being destroyed, Russia now faces criticism over proposed new import restrictions on life-saving medical equipment for the country's most vulnerable.

In a St Petersburg hospital
In a St Petersburg hospital
Maxim Ivanov, Maria Karpenko and Khalil Aminov

MOSCOW — Prominent non-profit organizations and charities in Russia have appealed to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on behalf of the country's most medically needy, asking the Russian government to halt a proposed extension of banned foreign drugs and medical equipment from the West, saying that patients are suffering because of the sanctions.

Managers from charities that help sick children and the elderly have signed a letter calling on Medvedev to set up a working group to communicate with those who are affected by existing import restrictions on supplies such as drugs, X-ray machines, defibrillators, crutches and prostheses.

They have asked the Prime Minister to examine the quality of domestically produced medical equipment in comparison with their foreign-produced equivalents. They say restrictions on these products are being introduced too quickly and that supplies produced domestically or within the Eurasian Customs Union, such as dressings and anti-bedsore mattresses, simply don't meet modern standards.

Lives in the balance

"The quality of life of patients after surgery, those in hospices, nursing homes, and all bed-ridden patients depends on the quality of these products," the letter reads.

A survey by the state-run Russian Academy of Economy and State Services found that the primary problems within Russian health care stemmed from a lack of state control over the health sector as well as a shortage of qualified staff. These were followed by issues related to lack of funding. They found that domestically produced ventilators are almost never used and are not suitable in any case for heavy patients or those who require prolonged treatment.

A dialysis center in Murmansk, Russia — Photo: Andrey Pronin/ZUMA

Vasily Shtabnitsky, among the members of the Live Now organization that sent the letter to Medvedev, says there are no adequate Russian-produced ventilators. "In Russia, more than 9,700 people need ongoing respiratory support, a third of them children," Shtabnitsky says.

Adopting the government proposals would "inevitably lead to a sharp decline in the quality of medical care," the letter reads. The charity Faith fears that restrictions on public procurement will lead to a shrinking market, making it no longer profitable to supply products to Russia in the future.

Elena Streletskya, general director of Medinform Healthcare Communications, says that the public sector accounts for a large chunk of the supplies listed in the draft resolution and would mean that Western suppliers would have to completely rearrange their organizations. "The procurement ban will hit their profitability," she says.

Dentistry would also be hard hit because 84% of supplies are imported. "Some items can be replaced, but not all, says Pavel Dobrovalsky, president of a a dental services association.

Analysis from the Vademecum Center found that despite Russia's commitment toward import substitution, local production of medical equipment has not yet reached 10% in some sectors. Less than 5% of MRI machines are made locally, for example, and less than 3% of dental equipment is. Not even 1% of optical lenses are produced in Russia.

"In the 1990s, the largest enterprises producing health products in the USSR were privatized, destroyed or their production reduced to a tenth of what it was," says Olga Goncharova, who heads the government's import substitution project. "They were replaced by private companies working in the face of fierce competition with foreign majors, and they have failed to take significant market share."

The New Life group's Valery Shilo says Russia is unable to produce dialysis machines and that the import substitution policy is "hurting us more than it's helping us."

So it comes as good news to her when Lyudmila Kostkina, deputy chair of the Federation Council Committee, says that proposed sanction extensions haven't been finalized and could be amended "after a full public discussion."

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