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Russia: Poor Fitness Of Conscripts Points To Public Health Crisis

Russia's Defense Ministry says only 12 percent of young men eligible for military service last year were actually drafted into the military. Almost half of those who reported for service were turned away due to poor health, while others claimed exemptions. What effect is this having on the military and what are the reasons for such dramatic numbers?

Prague, 17 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The semi-annual call-up of young men into the Russian armed forces, with its ever-shrinking pool of men fit for the draft, points to a looming problem for the military. But it has also focused attention on what appears to be a growing health crisis in Russia.

Under Russia's current conscription law, young men are required to serve for two years in the army or three years in the navy upon reaching adulthood. The draft can be deferred or avoided by university study, and many teenage boys from better-off families with money or connections -- even if they do not gain admission into higher education -- can bribe their way out of military service.

This means that young men from average-income or poor families -- with no special contacts -- are the ones who actually report to the draft commissions. And of those, 40 percent last year were rejected due to inadequate mental or physical health.

That figure has more than doubled over the past 10 years, and Russian doctors agree that it indicates a crisis in the health of adolescents and raises serious questions about the failure of the system to ensure its citizens' health.

Dr. Valentina Zvizdina is a specialist in childhood illnesses at the Moscow Institute of Child and Adolescent Hygiene. She tells RFE/RL: "We see a negative tendency, the worsening of the health of adolescents. This has been confirmed by all scientific and health institutes. It has been confirmed at the ministerial level, at various plenums and seminars. We see a continuing deterioration in the health of teenagers. And this doesn't concern just male conscripts but also girls. There are many reasons. Now the problem is, how to halt this process?"

Zvizdina notes that it is important to pay attention to nutrition and exercise during adolescence, when the body undergoes rapid change, as well as to monitor chronic illnesses, which could grow worse in adult years. In Soviet times, 75 percent of schoolchildren received meals at school. Today, that number has shrunk to 25 percent.

Zvizdina also says early diagnostic tools are woefully inadequate, since much of the Soviet-era medical system has been dismantled. After starting primary school, most children are no longer monitored regularly by pediatricians. For some young men, their first comprehensive medical check-up occurs at the draft commission, when they are already 18 years old. It is only at that point that conditions such as high blood pressure, poor physical fitness, and psychological disorders are discovered. Zvizdina says one of the most widespread problems is directly linked to poor nutrition.

"Due to the current socioeconomic situation, we have seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of children with low body mass. And one of the factors for disqualification from military service is this diagnosis."

Which is a lucky thing, because two years of service in the Russian military, according to human rights organizations, is only likely to further debilitate young recruits. The average pay for soldiers is the equivalent of just a few dollars a month, and malnutrition and alcohol and drug abuse are reported to be rife. According to the well-respected Organization of Soldiers' Mothers -- an NGO which documents conditions in the military -- more than 3,000 conscripts die annually as a result of brutal hazing, starvation, and other maltreatment.

Getting back to the health problems affecting Russia's civilian population, Dr. Aleksandr Deyev, of Russia's National Center for Preventive Medicine, tells RFE/RL that the rise in overall poverty over the past decade has hit teenagers especially hard.

"Thirty percent of the population lives below the poverty level, can you imagine? It's a big part of society. This has an enormous influence on adolescents. Never before have we had 1 million seriously neglected children and some 200,000 homeless children."

New social factors such as drugs also play their part in the deteriorating health of Russia's youth. Dr. Zvizdina explains: "Psychotropic drug use among teenagers is increasing. I'm not even talking about real drug addiction, which earlier existed as a far less serious issue. Of course, military doctors in the draft commissions are encountering this problem. Earlier, it wasn't such an issue. And this imposes more limitations. It's an additional contingent of adolescents who also can't be drafted."

Dr. Zvizdina says it is time for schools once again to pay more attention to the social and physical development of children, to ensure that the next generation of teenagers is healthier.

"The only way out of this situation is to improve our medical system, especially early diagnosis of illnesses so that they can be treated long before call-up. If we just had the time to do this. The second thing is to conduct health programs in schools -- that is the place where children spend most of their time. We have to use this fact."

While other European countries continue to see a steady improvement in the health of their citizens, Russia is going the other way. It is the only industrialized country in the world to register a decrease in life expectancy in the last decade -- especially among men. Dr. Deyev hopes that the alarming findings of the draft commissions may focus additional attention on the health problems facing not only young Russian men, but the male population in general.

"Life expectancy for men is now 62 years, for women it's 74 years. That's a very big difference between men and women. I explain this by the fact that we have very high risk factors for men. They have a high incidence of early high blood pressure and alcohol abuse. According to our statistics, 14 percent of men abuse alcohol while for women it's only 1.5 percent. With smoking, the incidence is growing among women. But according to our data, no more than 20 percent of women smoke, but it's over 60 percent for men."

Dr. Deyev says that at this rate, the Russian armed forces might soon have to be composed largely of women.