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Fires At Russia's Psychiatric Facilities Highlight Neglect

  • Tom Balmforth

Russian rescue workers remove a body bag at the site of a deadly fire that razed a psychiatric hospital in Novgorod Oblast, killing at least 37 people.

Russian rescue workers remove a body bag at the site of a deadly fire that razed a psychiatric hospital in Novgorod Oblast, killing at least 37 people.

MOSCOW -- It was at least the second deadly blaze at a psychiatric hospital this year.

In the early hours of September 13, a fire ripped through an aging and dilapidated psychiatric hospital, killing at least 37 people in a village in northwestern Novgorod Oblast. It came just months after a psychiatric hospital in Moscow's suburbs was engulfed by fire in April, killing 38, including patients trapped in wards behind barred windows.

On the heels of lethal fires at schools and nightclubs, the blazes signal haphazard safety regulations in Russia. But they also shine a spotlight on the decrepit state of psychiatric facilities.

If changes aren't made, Lyubov Vinogradova, executive director of the Independent Psychiatric Association, says such tragedies will continue to happen.

"The main reason is most of the buildings that house these wards are not fit for use," she says "They are very old buildings, many of them built out of wood. All of them are located in buildings that are not suitable for psychiatric wards. There are no measures for fire safety. So when something does happen it often ends in a catastrophe."

Safety inspectors earlier this year found a catalogue of fire-safety violations at the psychiatric hospital. A court subsequently ordered the dilapidated facility closed, but it nevertheless remained open.

According to the Independent Psychiatric Association, this is not uncommon. The Health Ministry in 2000 found that one-third of Russia’s hundreds of psychiatric hospitals are "unfit for use."

Funding Shortfalls, Staff Shortages

Since then, practically "nothing has been done," according to Vinogradova. And, despite the ministry's findings, patients cannot be moved because there is nowhere to put them.

A major issue is the lack of financing. Although President Vladimir Putin has increased overall funding for health care, psychiatry receives the lowest amounts of money in the sector.

Vinogradova also blamed the fire-fighting services for being slow to get to the scene as well as the chronic lack of medical staff responsible for evacuating patients in such emergencies. Due to the staff shortages, training in this area is poor and standards tend to be low.

Only 22 patients were safely evacuated.

A 46-year old nurse was killed trying to save bedridden patients as emergency services traveled more than 40 kilometers to the scene. Some of the patients had serious mental disorders, were blind, or under sedation.

Photographs released by the emergency services show the charred husk of the wooden and concrete hospital.

A preliminary investigation suggests that the fire was caused by a patient who was smoking.

Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin flew to scene to personally oversee an investigation. A criminal case has been opened into "negligence causing death."

But Vinogradova is skeptical that a shake-up will be forthcoming.

"This is definitely not the last time [it will happen] and it is unfortunate that these things happen here, but no basic measures are being implemented," she says.
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at