Russia accused of masking heatwave death toll

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Accusations are growing in the Russian media and on the Internet that authorities have sought to play down the impact of the worst heatwave in its history by failing to disclose the true death toll.

Federal authorities have so far steadfastly refused to give details about any national death toll, although one Moscow official has said there have been hundreds more deaths each day in the capital alone due to the heatwave.

The press has also accused the Moscow authorities of imposing an effective ban on the diagnosis of heatstroke as a cause of death or illness in a bid to keep a lid on the statistics.

"We received the order not to use the diagnosis 'heatstroke'. We are told that the statistics for heatstroke were mounting up," one doctor told Interfax news agency.

"There was no official order, everything is has been communicated orally," the source added.

News website even published a picture of what it said was an informal order pinned up in a Moscow hospital saying: "Attention! Do not use the diagnosis heatstroke!"

"This is done so that the statistics, including cases of death connected with the heatwave, do not mount up," a medical source told the website.

An official from Moscow's health department told AFP: "There have been no such bans, it is rubbish." The department also did not respond to a request from AFP for statistics.

The only official to disclose the extent of the toll has been Moscow's chief doctor, Andrei Seltsovsky, who earlier this week released grim statistics on mortality.

"In usual times 360-380 people are dying each day. Now it is around 700," he said. "Our mortality rate has doubled," he added, saying that 1,300 places were currently occupied out of 1,500 spaces in city morgues.

The Russian health ministry promptly demanded an explanation from Seltsovsky for releasing the figures, saying official statistics for the period were not yet ready and would be released later this month.

Anton Avdeyev, head of the Russian union for funeral agency workers, told AFP that Seltsovsky had been forced to release the numbers due to the piles of anecdotal evidence of a high toll massing on the Internet.

"Corpses stayed in the apartments for 10-12 days because there were no vehicles available to transport them," he said.

"You could have foreseen the situation in the middle of July just looking at the weather forecast. I told my colleagues, 'we are going to have an avalanche of corpses'. Why was that not clear to the people at city hall?"

He said that with the very worst of the heatwave now apparently over, the spike in mortality was showing signs of ending.

His comments have also been backed by numerous Russian bloggers.

"Grandad died of heatstroke 24 hours ago and is still in the apartment and it is 35 degrees Celsius outside. We have covered him in a wet cloth and closed the windows to slow down the decomposition," said blogger molitva_i_post.

Doctors have also used their blogs to talk of conditions including temperatures of over 50 degrees inside ambulances, smoke pervading hospitals and air conditioning failing in operating rooms.

© 2010 AFP

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