Infant mortality rising in former Soviet states

There is a hidden crisis of infant mortality in many Caucasus and central Asian countries, Unicef said yesterday, with the real figures much higher than reported by their governments.

One of the widest discrepancies is in Azerbaijan, where the estimated rate was 74 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births compared with an official rate of 17 per 1,000, according to a report by the United Nations Children's Fund.

Carol Bellamy, Unicef's executive director, said in Florence: "Our report found official statistics in the Caucasus and central Asia hide the gravity of the crisis. Flawed statistics are a danger to children. They inspire complacency, keeping governments and health workers and even parents in the dark on the true nature of the threats to child survival."

Unicef compared hospital records with birth and death registers. A random sample of mothers were also interviewed in their homes.

Other countries surveyed with estimated infant mortality rates much higher than official numbers included Tajikistan (89 versus 47), Turkmenistan (74 versus 33), Kazakhstan (62 versus 24), Kyrgyzstan (61 versus 29), Uzbekistan (49 versus 30), Georgia (43 versus 16) and Armenia (36 versus 15).

Ms Bellamy said infant mortality rates in the region were more than double those in Latin America and far higher than in east Asia, the Middle East and north Africa. The rate in advanced industrialised nations in 2000 was 4.8.

Unicef blamed the under- reporting mainly on differences in how countries defined infant mortality. The survey found that the hardships of travelling to registration centres sometimes meant births and deaths went unreported.

Many children died because their mothers were in poor health. Doctors were generally well trained under the Soviet system, Unicef said, but, with the collapse of state health systems, many found themselves prescribing medicine parents could not afford.