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Declining growth status of indigenous Siberian children in post-Soviet Russia

Human Biology, Apr 2002 by Leonard, William R, Spencer, Gary J, Galloway, Victoria A, Osipova, Ludmilla

Abstract Human health status in Russia has declined sharply over the last decade. The massive social changes that have taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union have resulted in increasing morbidity and mortality rates. However, relatively little information is available on the changes in health and disease patterns of Russia's many indigenous populations. The present study examines anthropometric indices of growth status of young children (


Much recent evidence indicates that human health status in Russia is declining sharply. The massive social and economic changes that have taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have resulted in increasing morbidity and mortality rates and unparalleled declines in life expectancy (Notzon et al. 1998; Kontorovich 2001; Shkolnikov et al. 2001). Such changes are the consequence of many factors, including widespread alcoholism, and more limited access to medical care. Consequently, it appears that in many parts of Russia mortality rates are approaching those seen in the developing world.

Although much of the research on health declines in Russia has focused on changes in the larger urban centers, the changes for indigenous Siberian populations appear to have been profound as well (Leonard et al. 1997; Sorensen et al. 2000; Spencer 1998). Most striking has been the dismantling of the state-run collectives that had been instituted during the Stalinist era (Uvachan 1975; Forsyth 1992; Fondahl 1995, 1998). Among the Evenki herders with whom we have worked, this shift has resulted in the return of reindeer herds to individual extended families rather than control by the state-run collectives. This transition has contributed to greater isolation of the Evenki from the larger towns and urban centers in Central Siberia. The increased isolation is the result of the great reduction in airplane and helicopter flights into the Evenki villages and herding units in the absence of financial support from the collectives. Hence, the transport of food and medical supplies, as well as travel in the region, has been greatly constricted.

These changes are having important demographic consequences for the Evenki. In particular, it appears that the wealthier and nonindigenous segments of the populations living in the rural Evenki villages have largely migrated out to larger towns and urban centers with access to regular air transport. Additionally, as has been seen in the urban areas of Russia, the post-Soviet period has seen a marked increase in death rates (Leonard et al. 1997).

Given that so many measures of adult health status have declined in Siberia over the last decade, it is reasonable to expect that childhood health and well-being have been influenced as well. This study addresses this question by examining anthropometric indices of growth and nutritional status of young children under 6 years of age, a sensitive index of population health, in indigenous Evenki communities of Central Siberia between 1991 and 1995. Specifically, we will examine the changes in standard indices of growth status (height-for-age, weight-forage, and skinfold measures) and explore the nature and potential causes of the observed changes.


Anthropometric data on the Evenki children were collected from two villages and their associated herding brigades in the Baykit District of Central Siberia. These data were collected during the summers of 1991and 1992, when the herding collectives were in operation, and in the summer of 1995, after the collectives had been dissolved. A total of 155 children under the age of 6 years were measured (see Table 1 for sample composition). Measurements included stature (cm), weight (kg), and the sum of the triceps and subcscapular skinfolds (mm).

All measurements were taken by a single observer (WRL) using standard techniques as outlined by Lohman et al. (1988). Linear (length/stature) measurements were recorded to the nearest mm. Recumbent length was measured for children under 2 years of age, whereas stature (standing height) was measured for children over 2 years. Body mass was measured to the nearest 0.2 kg with a hanging scale for children under 2 years, and a standing floor scale for children over 2 years. Skinfold thicknesses were measured to the nearest 0.5 mm using Lange calipers.

Height-for-age, weight-for-age, and weight-for-height measures were standardized as z scores relative to the US National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) norms (Hamill et al. 1979) using the ANTHRO software program (Sullivan and Gorstein 1990). The sum of triceps and subscapular skinfold measures were compared to the US norms compiled by Frisancho (1990).


Patterns of Growth. Figures 1a and b show statural growth of Evenki boys and girls, respectively, compared to the US 5th and 50th Gentiles. Among the boys, differences between the two cohorts are evident under age 2 years, with those of the 1995 cohort being shorter than those measured in 1991/92. Above age 2 years, average stature in the two cohorts is similar, tracking at about the US 5th Gentile. The pattern is comparable for girls. Those of the 1995 cohort are systematically shorter than their peers from 1991/92, with the differences being most pronounced under 2 years of age.


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