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Cystic-Fibrosis Patients Relieved As Russia Lifts Ban On Lifesaving Product

Natalya Dyomina, a cystic-fibrosis sufferer in Moscow, says the U.S.-made supplements she takes "are life-saving, they should not be subjected to any sanctions."

Natalya Dyomina is in a celebratory mood.

Following loud protests by advocacy groups, Russia has agreed to lift its ban on Western nutritional supplements vital to patients suffering from a range of chronic diseases.

"I'm very happy," says the 33-year-old Muscovite, who has been battling cystic fibrosis since childhood and relies on special high-calorie mixes to stay healthy. "I'm happy we were given the possibility to continue receiving these products. Thankfully, the situation was resolved relatively quickly and didn't result in any more tragedies. We lose patients often enough as it is."

Russia banned so-called medical foods earlier this month as part of sweeping sanctions on Western foodstuffs. Because the supplements contain milk powder, these products initially fell under the restrictions slapped in response to U.S. and EU sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine.

The move had sparked fear among cystic-fibrosis sufferers, most of whom require dietary supplements to prevent weight loss and fight off infections. "These products are life-saving, they should not be subjected to any sanctions," Dyomina says. "Such a ban has deadly consequences for us."

There is no known cure for cystic fibrosis, a serious genetic disease that impairs the lungs and digestive system.

Dyomina takes the U.S.-made supplements Pulmocare and Nutridrink on a daily basis. News of the ban, she says, had left her "shocked and scared."

Hope For Civil Society In Russia Yet

"Cystic-fibrosis patients have a dysfunctional pancreas and absorb nutrients very poorly," explains Olga Alekina, who runs a Moscow-based aid group for people with the disease. "Only with these special supplements can the body continue to function."

Russia, too, produces its own brands of medical food. Due to their limited output and selection, however, these products couldn't currently offset shortages of the imported varieties.

"A wide range of these products should be available on the market," says Alekina, whose own son has cystic fibrosis. "Medical foods for cystic-fibrosis patients include products for diabetics, products for infants, for older children. Russian medical foods are available and I wouldn't say they are substandard. But they cannot cover the needs of all patients."

Alekina's group has been active in lobbying against the ban, which also targets fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, milk, and dairy imports from the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Norway.

Together with another health-advocacy group, it sent a letter to the Health Ministry outlining risks for patients and calling for medical foods to be taken off the list of banned imports. Similar petitions were sent to President Vladimir Putin.

On August 20, two weeks after the sanctions were introduced, the government announced it would make exceptions for a handful of Western-made products, including lactose-free milk and nutritional supplements. After additional consultations with officials, Alekina and her colleagues finally received confirmation that imported medical foods were classified as nutritional supplements and would remain available in Russia.

Dyomina calls the reversal a major victory, one which proves even Russia's beleaguered civil society can still have an impact on government policies. "I want to live a good, quality life and not answer for other people's mistakes or principles," she says. "We love our state, but we also want our state to love us back -- just the way we are, with our diseases and our needs."