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News 06 Oct 17

High Infant Mortality Rate Puzzles Macedonia

Macedonia's infant mortality rate is almost three times the European average – and the new government is under pressure to find out what is going wrong.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
Skopje Gynecology Clinic. Photo: MIA

The Macedonian authorities are sending out inspectors and promising new equipment for gynecology clinics following more disturbing cases of new-borns dying unexpectedly.

On Wednesday, media reported a new case in the northwestern town of Tetovo. The infant's mother had already died during child birth.

On September 29, media reported four babies dying in just two days at the country's largest gynecology clinic in Skopje. These deaths had occurred a week earlier, on September 21 and 22.

The State Health and Sanitary Inspectorate has now sent inspection teams to the Skopje clinic to find out what is going on.

In a week's time, they must determine whether this clinic, which handles most childbirths in Macedonia, suffers from lack of capacity, poor hygiene and unqualified staff.

"We will make a complete inspection of the load that the hospital faces, of the number of patients, the number of beds and incubators and the load at the operating rooms, as well as of the available personnel," Irina Sotirova Buhova, the head of the inspectorate, said.

The problem of a high mortality rate among babies is not new in Macedonia. The infant mortality rate within the first week of childbirth in Macedonia rose from 7.5 per 1,000 live births in 2011 to 9.9 in 2014.

According to the State Statistical Office, the number reached a European record of 14.3 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2015. By comparison, the European average for that year was 5.2 deaths per 1,000 live births.

In 2015, the then Health Minister Nikola Todorov survived a no-confidence vote in parliament instigated by the then opposition Social Democrats, SDSM. Among other things he was blamed for allowing the rate of infant deaths to spiral out of control.

He defended himself by saying that, during his time in office, the ministry had invested some 100 million euros in new medical equipment.

According to the latest available data for 2016 and the first half of 2017, the infant mortality does not seem to be dropping so far.

Macedonia counted 273 infant deaths in 2016 and the number this year shows much the same trend, with 127 deaths to date.

The new SDSM-led government elected in May is feeling the full heat of the problem. Now, the former ruling VMRO DPMNE party, which held power when the problem arose, accuses the new authorities of neglect.

The recently appointed head of the Skopje Gynecology Clinic, Viktorija Jovanovska, has acknowledged the scale of the problems and promised improvements.

"We cannot do anything overnight but we are monitoring the conditions in order to detect all the weak links at the clinic," Jovanovska told Telma TV.

She said the health ministry had promised soon to buy them new beds, incubators and other equipment. New hires of qualified staff are also being mulled.

However, the ministry on Thursday told BIRN that while they were working on addressing the problem, owing to the campaign for the local elections due on October 15, they cannot make new purchases or start tendering procedures right now, or urgently employ new staff at the clinic.

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