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'Mass Murder:' Russian Patients Brace For Ban On Medical Imports

Yulia Koptseva says the proposed legislation to ban foreign medical supplies would inflict unspeakable suffering on her 6-year-old daughter Anastasia, who relies on German bandages to alleviate a rare and painful skin condition.
Yulia Koptseva says the proposed legislation to ban foreign medical supplies would inflict unspeakable suffering on her 6-year-old daughter Anastasia, who relies on German bandages to alleviate a rare and painful skin condition.

When Yulia Koptseva heard about a Russian government plan to ban a range of foreign-made medical goods, she had a single, urgent thought: "I want my daughter to live."

That was also the poignant comment she left on an online petition that has gathered almost 10,000 signatures against the proposal, unveiled earlier this month by Russia's Industry and Trade Ministry.

Koptseva's 6-year-old daughter Anastasia suffers from epidermolysis bullosa, a rare and painful condition that causes the skin to blister and tear at the slightest touch.

If the ban is adopted, Koptseva fears Anastasia will no longer have access to the high-quality German bandages that have helped ease her pain, prevent extensive skin trauma, and lower the constant risk that she will develop life-threatening infections.

"This amounts to mass murder," says Koptseva, a former Moscow university teacher who quit her job to care for her daughter. "They might as well shoot people who need such supplies."

The proposed ban has sparked dismay in Russia, where many hospitals are woefully underequipped and patients often struggle against a host of barriers – from bureaucracy to indifference and ineptitude -- to receive even basic treatment.

Health experts say the ban, which targets more than 100 kinds of foreign-made medical goods and equipment, would deal a devastating blow to Russia's most vulnerable citizens.

Under the proposal, state-funded facilities would no longer be allowed to import items such as ventilators, MRI scanners, X-ray and ultrasound machines, defibrillators, and incubators for newborns.

The list of supplies that would be subject to restrictions also includes prosthetic devices, sterile bandages, orthopedic hospital mattresses, walking frames, and even condoms.

Private enterprises would not be affected, a detail that critics say would only widen the gap between the quality of care available to the rich and the poor in Russia.

"This won't influence our fund directly, we will still be able to purchase foreign goods," says Aliona Kuratova, who runs BELA, a medical charity that helps children with epidermolysis bullosa. "But those children who currently receive state-funded treatment will be at risk."

'Butterfly Children'

An estimated 1,500 people in Russia suffer from the incurable genetic disease. Sufferers, who have a limited life span, are sometimes called "butterfly children" as their skin is as easily damaged as an insect's wings.

Many of them, like Anastasia, rely on state programs to obtain imported bandages, plasters, and antiseptics required to dress their skin.

Koptseva says the proposed ban, which would affect these items, will inflict unspeakable suffering upon butterfly children and expose them to severe infections.

"When we remove ordinary bandages from our children's bodies, the skin peels off, too," she says. "If these products are not purchased this year, we are doomed. I'm very scared."

BELA, together with a handful of Russian medical NGOs, sent a letter to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week urging him not to push ahead with the proposed ban.

The letter warned that the measure "could lead of a sharp drop in the quality of medical care" and called on authorities to first conduct a detailed review of all medical goods manufactured in Russia.

Much of Russia's medical production falls behind international standards, the letter charged, citing the example of bandages that leave threads in patients' wounds and cause infections.

Public discussions on the proposal, scheduled to end on August 17, have been extended for another 60 days due to the emotional debate it has sparked in Russia.

Officially, the measure is aimed at bolstering domestic companies that produce medical supplies.

The proposal, however, is widely seen as politically motivated -- just like the prohibitions Russia slapped on many Western foods last year in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, and other countries over Moscow's interference in Ukraine.

In the past year, Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin have held countless meetings dedicated to 'importozameshcheniye,' a 'Made in Russia' push to replace imported goods with domestically produced equivalents -- and support Russian industry into the bargain.


Coming amid controversy over Putin's decree to destroy illegally imported food -- and the frenzy of burning and bulldozing that ensued -- the threat of a ban has added fodder for accusations that the Kremlin is sacrificing the welfare of Russians for the sake of patriotic propaganda.

Critics say Russia just isn't ready.

Many companies that manufactured medical supplies in the Soviet era either collapsed or severely cut back their production after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, and Russia has since made little progress in supplanting foreign suppliers.

WATCH: Russian Hospitals Face Ban On Imported Medical Supplies

Russian Hospitals Face Ban On Imported Medical Supplies
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According to Vademecum, a group that analyses the Russian market for medical supplies, Russian health professionals rely heavily on imports.

For instance, Vademecum says that only 5 percent of Russia's MRI scanners, often used to diagnose cancer, are made in the country. In dentistry, this figure drops to 3 percent.

"We [Russia] don't really produce medical equipment," says Aleksei Maschan, a surgical oncologist at a Moscow hospital. "And whenever we produce something, it's absolutely appalling."

"When we bought equipment for our facility, we looked, just for a laugh, at what was available in Russia," he said. "Nothing. Less than 5 percent."

Renat Akchurin, a veteran Russian cardiac surgeon who performed a quintuple bypass operation on President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, has harsh words for Russian medical goods.

The only Russian-made item used in his Moscow clinic, Akchurin told RFE/RL, are bottles of saline solution.

"The entire medical industry should not be driven by jingoism or patriotism but by the desire to provide the highest-level facilities and equipment, like the Americans do," he said.

Koptseva says she loves her country. As a university student, she wrote her thesis on Russian patriotism.

When authorities banned her favorite Italian parmesan last year, she dutifully switched to Russian cheese.

But with her daughter's life on the line, she is reaching her limit.

"I'm a genuine patriot," she said. "But I'm not going to tell my daughter that, out of love for the motherland, we will now wrap her up with bandages that will enter her wounds and rip her skin off."

Vadim Kondakov contributed to this report from Moscow.