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Last Updated: Friday, 3 June 2005, 04:49 GMT 05:49 UK
Concerns over Turkmen health care
By Ania Lichtarowicz
BBC health reporter

President Saparmyrat Niyazov's palace in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Despite the capital's apparent wealth, citizens live in poverty
Life expectancy in Turkmenistan is just 62 - lower than in any other country in Europe and Central Asia, a British study has found.

This was the first major research into the health of people living in the former Soviet Republic.

Its authors, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, say the health care system in Turkmenistan is poor, even by Central Asian standards.

Over the last five years, health care has systematically deteriorated.

International bodies like the United Nations and the European Parliament have condemned human rights abuses in Turkmenistan, but this is the first time there have been calls from leading health experts to improve medical care.

President Saparmyrat Niyazov has shut nearly all higher education facilities, effectively stopping the training of new doctors and nurses.

Lack of prevention

In addition, his other decisions have had a major impact: closing all hospitals outside the capital, abolishing free health care and firing 15,000 health care workers in just one day and replacing them with army conscripts.

"Rates of TB are high, and HIV, too," said Bernd Rechel from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, one of the authors of the report.

"The country is claiming there are currently no cases, but unofficial sources report there are perhaps thousands of infected people," he added.

"And these people won't have access to proper diagnosis and treatment. The policy of the government will worsen the situation, that's for sure."

Ignoring these types of diseases means no-one knows exactly how many cases there are.

It also results in a complete lack of prevention measures - like safer sex campaigns or promoting sterile needle use.

The report states the government is ignoring the increasing number of young people taking hard drugs, which is fuelling suicide rates and prostitution.

The international community must act now, the scientists say, to make the government improve health care access and stop human rights violations that are increasing public health problems.

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