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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 19:24 GMT
Russia funds health crisis plan
Homeless men eating soup in St Petersburg
Widespread poverty has aggravated Russia's health problems
Russia has set aside almost $3bn (1.53bn) for an emergency programme to tackle its epidemic of ill-health and a falling life expectancy.

The programme aims to reduce mortality rates by targeting diabetes, TB, HIV/Aids and cancer.

The health ministry says average life expectancy for Russian men is less than 60 years - about 15 years lower than in most other industrialised countries.

Life expectancy for Russian women is about 72.

Politically sensitive

The BBC's Steven Eke in Moscow says this represents a new Five Year Plan - not aimed at boosting the production of tractors but at tackling the causes behind one of the world's worst health crises.

Many diseases have spread rapidly since the Soviet Union's collapse.

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said: "We aim to tackle the problem seriously - and that includes providing adequate funding for the fight against TB, diabetes, cancers, HIV and viral hepatitis."

Our correspondent says Russian and international medical authorities have previously accused the government of chronic inaction - even of being in denial about the extent of the country's health crisis.

He says some have already pointed out that the extra spending announced for healthcare today is one 60th of the amount earmarked for the same period for an overhaul of the Russian armed forces.

The demographic crisis is an extremely sensitive matter politically.

The population fell by more than 560,000 last year to 142.2m, a new low for the post-Soviet era.

Experts point out that much of Russia's health crisis is the result of unhealthy lifestyles, especially very high rates of smoking and alcohol abuse.

There are also environmental issues - last year, a survey by a US research centre said that half of the world's most polluted places were in the former Soviet Union.

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