Page last updated at 08:52 GMT, Wednesday, 1 April 2009 09:52 UK

Medicine crisis hits Russia's poor

Pharmacy in St Petersburg
St Petersburg's governor has warned of a looming catastrophe for patients

The impact of the global economic crisis has forced some Russians to make a desperate choice between food and medicine, the BBC's Richard Galpin reports from Russia's second city, St Petersburg.

St Petersburg is one of Russia and Europe's most glamorous cities.

Brimming with history, culture, wealth and beauty, it comes as a shock to discover its dark underbelly.

But in these times of hardship, the weaknesses in the Russian economy and social welfare systems have been laid bare.

We drove out from the Venetian atmosphere of the city centre to a grimy suburb to meet a man who in his heyday had been a member of the cultural elite.

I have been prescribed medicines which cost more than 7,000 roubles a month but my pension is just more than 4,000 roubles
Sasha Pol Marsel

Sasha Pol Marsel used to be a concert pianist giving performances in Russia and abroad.

Now 60 years old, he came to greet us in the entrance to his apartment block, which was covered in graffiti and stank of urine.

To get to his apartment, we passed through makeshift hardboard doors, before sitting down in the meagre, decaying surroundings he calls home, which he shares with his elderly mother.

He soon pulled out his mobile phone, where he stores a recording of a performance he gave 30 years ago of Rachmaninov's first piano concerto. We listened to the brilliance of the man who once was.


Today, his thoughts are as far from the glamour of the concert hall and the exhilaration of live performance as it is possible to be.

Alexander Pol Marsel
Mr Pol Marsel sometimes cannot even find vital tablets in the pharmacies

Instead, he is preoccupied by illness and faces a fundamental struggle for survival.

Having suffered a series of strokes and after becoming diabetic, he requires a vast assortment of medicines, which have now risen so steeply in price because of the economic crisis that he can no longer afford them.

"I have been prescribed medicines which cost more than 7,000 roubles [£145; $207] a month but my pension is just more than 4,000 roubles [£83; $118]," he said.

"So some medicines I simply cannot afford. At times I don't buy food, but what can I do?"

He told me that sometimes he cannot even find vital tablets in the city's pharmacies.

Exchange rate

Last month, the governor of St Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko, warned of what she called a looming "catastrophe" in the market for medicines because of the global economic crisis.

St Petersburg port (Photo: Sea Port of Saint Petersburg)
At least 80% of all the medicine used in Russia is imported

The root cause of the problem is the slide of the Russian rouble against the dollar and euro over the past four months.

That has made importing foreign goods much more expensive, and so now there are far fewer medicines being imported.

"Our company expects that our cargo turnover will decrease this year by about 28%," says Yulia Zheboyedova, director of communications for the sea port of St Petersburg.

And the problem for those who are sick is that they depend on imports, because at least 80% of all medicine used in Russia is made abroad.

Rouble notes
The root cause of the soaring prices is the slide of the Russian rouble

Outside a pharmacist in the city centre, one woman told us how the price for the medicine she needs to treat her mother for cancer had gone up by 150%.

Under a front-page headline saying "Medicine instead of Bread", a local newspaper recently published a list of medicines which had shot up in price, including some which had tripled.

The city authorities say they have spent money stockpiling medicines, particularly for hospitals.

But that leaves most people extremely vulnerable to the whims of the market in the midst of a deep economic crisis.

Budget cuts

Oleg Sergeyev, head of the city council's health committee had little comfort for those now in distress, other than promising to monitor prices and to set up a hotline for people to complain about increases.

Konstantin Levando
Some people have died because they cannot buy particular drugs
Dr Konstantin Levando

"Because of the economic crisis, many major investors have left St Petersburg," he said.

"So the city has lost a third of its [overall] budget and therefore cannot put any extra money into the health budget."

And apparently there is no extra money for medicine from the federal government either.

"It's very bad for our seriously ill patients," said Dr Konstantin Levando, the only doctor who agreed to be interviewed on the record.

"They wait and wait until they are in a critical condition and then call to be taken into hospital emergency wards," where they get free medicines and treatment.

"Some people have died because they cannot buy particular drugs," he added. "The situation is very dangerous."

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