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Sanctions Devastate Serbia’s Health Care; Patients Dying With AM-Yugoslavia, Bjt

September 4, 1993 GMT

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Serb officials blame wartime sanctions for a skyrocketing death rate among patients with curable diseases. Many of the victims are children.

Medical supplies are supposed to be exempt from the international embargo imposed on Serb-dominated Yugoslavia 15 months ago and tightened in June. But authorities say red tape and a lack of cash impede the flow of supplies.

The sanctions were imposed to punish Belgrade for backing rebel Serbs in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, two former Yugoslav republics.

One solution would be to persuade the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee to unfreeze Serb assets abroad on the condition that the funds are used to buy medical supplies.

Such a measure was proposed in June by Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, head of the World Health Organization in Geneva. Although WHO has since warned the health crisis is becoming ″dramatic,″ there’s been no response.

Dr. Svetislav Ristic, chief of Serbia’s epidemiology institute, said 108 patients with contagious diseases, including 60 children, died in Serbia in the first half of this year - a rate five times that of the same period in 1992.

″Because of the sanctions, we have patients, mostly children, dying of otherwise curable diseases,″ he said.

Authorities report a rapid increase in measles and tuberculosis, partly because of a shortage of vaccines. A lack of transfusion equipment has limited the capacity of hospitals to perform life-saving surgery.

Belgrade’s neurology hospital lacks medical supplies ranging from X-ray film and spare parts for medical equipment to essential antibiotics, anti- cancer drugs and anesthetics.

Dr. Vladimir Hrnjak, chief cardiac surgeon at Belgrade’s Mother and Child Institute, said his team can now perform only 150 life-saving operations annually, down from 500 before the sanctions were imposed in May 1992.

″We have 400 children with heart defects waiting to be operated. Some will die before their turn comes,″ Hrnjak said. Dozens already have, he added.

In mental hospitals, some patients have to be physically restrained because of a lack of sedatives. Women going to the hospital to give birth must bring their own bed sheets. In some Belgrade hospitals, patients depend on relatives and friends to bring them food.

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The sanctions also have taken their toll on Serbia’s economy. Inflation is nearly 2,000 percent and unemployment is 50 percent. The government has begun rationing some basic foodstuffs.

Many families must sell houses, cars and gold to purchase life-saving or anti-cancer drugs on the black market. One package of insulin, essential for the control of diabetes, costs about $100 - at least three times the average monthly salary.

WHO spokesman Michel Barton said his agency could not confirm deaths caused by the sanctions-induced supply shortages, but added he ″would not rule out that this is making it impossible to give life-saving care in some cases.″

Nakajima has asked U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in writing to advise the sanctions committee on the situation and to appeal to states to unfreeze assets for purchases of medicine, Barton said.

But Serbian health authorities say their pleas get lost in red tape and skepticism.

Many Serbs fail to understand why they suffer for the policies of President Slobodan Milosevic’s nationalist government, which backs a ″Greater Serbia″ that would include lands in Croatia and Bosnia where ethnic Serbs live.

Last month, the plight of 5-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic, a Sarajevo mortar victim, touched hearts across the globe. She and dozens of other sick and wounded were evacuated to hospitals in the West.

″I was truly touched by the pictures of little Irma. But we have hundreds of Irmas here and the world does not care,″ said Dragica Spasic, whose 3- year-old son, Milan, is awaiting surgery for a congenital heart defect.

″Why do they identify us with Serbia’s regime?″ she said, tears welling in her eyes. ″We are humans, and we also hate the regime.″