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Despite Recession Russians' Health Continues to Improve

A report to Putin by Russia's Health Minister confirms further improvements in general health and life expectancy

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

On Thursday 10th March 2016 Putin had a meeting with this Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova.  

The Kremlin has released a transcript of this meeting.

Their meeting reviewed the general state of health of Russia’s population in 2015 and during the first two months of 2016.

The background to this meeting is that after many years of decline Russia’s population stabilised around 2009 and has since begun to grow.

This recovery is connected to an increase in the birthrate and to a general improvement in the Russian population’s health, which is related to a decline in the mortality rate.

As with all other good news coming out of Russia, the West - which obsessively reported the previous population decline and the collapse in the birthrate and life expectancy that was causing it - has all but ignored this improvement.

The result is that - as his recent comments show - someone even as presumably well-informed as US President Obama appears to be uninformed of it.

The big test was whether the improvement would continue in 2015, which was a year of recession and the first year since Putin became President that living standards in Russia have experienced a fall.

In the event Skvortsova’s report suggests that the recession has had only a negligible impact.

It seems that life expectancy has risen to a - for Russia - historic high of 71.2 years, with most of the improvement in male life expectancy, which increased over the course of 2015 by 6 months.

A brief spike in mortality rates which caused some concern at the start of the year seems to have been entirely down to a worse than usual flu epidemic.

Apparently this year's flu epidemic was much less severe, which suggests that the trend in improvement in life expectancy will continue during the year as a whole.

Life expectancy in Russia is still unacceptably low for such a developed country, and is far below the average of over 80 years which is now found not just in the developed countries of the West, but also in many of the countries of what was once called the Third World. However it has improved from 69 years in 2013 to 71.2 years now.  

Though the improvement is gradual, it is sustained and steady. 

Apparently it is the result not just of improvements in health care but of a continuing switch to more healthy life and work styles - in other words to declines or improvements  - in Putin’s words - in the rates of “smoking, alcohol consumption, working conditions and road safety”.

On the subject of excessive alcohol consumption - by universal agreement a major cause of premature death amongst Russian men - I would pass on a point made to me during my trip to Perm in September.

This is that a factor in causing alcoholism to fall amongst men is the rapid spread of car ownership.  In Russia drink driving regulations are rigorously enforced - as I have witnessed myself - and car ownership now gives Russian men a strong incentive to regulate their alcohol intake which did not exist before. 

After having drawn level in the 1950s with the levels of life expectancy being achieved at that time in the West, Russia missed out on the dramatic improvements in health and life expectancy that took place in the West after 1970. 

On the contrary, as the alcohol epidemic took hold and as the health system stagnated because of lack of official interest, the general state of the Russian population’s health began to decline after 1970.

The situation then became catastrophically worse during the disaster years of the 1990s, with male life expectancy falling to a catastrophic low of 57 years in 1994, and with female life expectancy also falling to 71 years.

Since the transformation in Russia’s political and economic situation which started in Putin’s first term, the situation has steadily improved, with Skvortsova telling Putin that the gap in life expectancy between Russian men and women has now fallen to 10.8 years.

That suggest that male life expectancy has now increased to about 65 or a bit more.

There is clearly a huge amount to do, but at least the trend is in the right direction and the recent recession has not changed it.

Though Putin gets constantly criticised in the West for bringing disaster upon Russia, what the facts actually show is that under his watch Russians are healthier and living longer than they have ever done before at any time in their history.

The publicly reported section of Skvortsova’s report to Putin deals with only half the equation, the one that concerns the general state of health of the population.  

Discussion of the birthrate is an issue that Putin is more likely to discuss in a broader meeting involving not only Skvortsova but also other ministers and officials responsible for social welfare and housing, which also have bearing on the state of the birthrate.

Skvortsova did however say that infant and maternal mortality rates in Russia have fallen significantly, with infant mortality rates falling from 7.4 per 1,000 in 2014 to 6.2 per 1,000 in 2015 - which is a historic low - and with further improvements in the first two months of 2016.

She also boasts that in some regions infant mortality rates are some of the lowest in the world, with the best result in Tomsk Region, where infant mortality is now as low as 1.7 per 1,000.  

She claims that because of the further improvements to the health care system which are underway “we currently have no doubt that we can achieve the lowest global rates for infant and maternal mortality”.

Setting such an objective would have been unimaginable 10 years ago and if someone in Skvortsova's position had made such a claim then it would have attracted widespread ridicule.  

The fact she is able to say such a thing now without this attracting comment in itself shows how much has changed.

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