Russia child cancer hospital closure plan stirs outrage

A woman leaves St Petersburg's Hospital No 31, 22 January The hospital once served the Soviet elite

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Plans to close a Russian hospital which specialises in treating children with cancer have drawn public outrage in President Vladimir Putin's home city, St Petersburg.

Petitions to save Hospital 31 have been signed by more than 98,000 people and a protest rally is being organised.

A final decision is not expected to be taken before next week.

St Petersburg was asked to vacate the hospital so it could be converted to serve Russia's top court officials.

Both the Supreme Court and the Higher Arbitration Court are set to relocate to the city, Russia's former capital, from Moscow.

Mr Putin approved the transfer in November, when it was seen by many as a boost for St Petersburg's prestige.

Prized hospital

News emerged earlier this month that Hospital No 31, believed to be the only specialist cancer clinic for children in the region, was being earmarked for court staff.

St Petersburg's Hospital No 31, 22 January Children with malignant tumours are treated at the hospital

Patients, including children would be moved to other hospitals under the plan, submitted to the city authorities for approval.

In response, families of sick children and hospital staff went online, signing two twin petitions to stop the transfer and save the hospital.

One of the petitions, addressed to Mr Putin, notes that the hospital was recently refitted and contains valuable medical equipment for the treatment of cancer victims.

Furthermore, it points out that in Soviet times, the hospital, which was built in the 1970s, served the Communist Party's elite, and was opened to the public only under perestroika.

"Back then, 20 years ago, it seemed obvious to everyone that the privileged people of St Petersburg were its children and old people," the petition says.

"We hope this is still the case today."

'My son's last chance'

Among those signing the petitions were celebrities such as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jaures Alferov, rock singer Andrei Makarevich and actress Chulpan Khamatova.

"The reorganisation of the hospital would destroy unique ways of caring for the children," Margarita Belogurova, head of the hospital's children's department, was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

Oleg Kostin, whose 11-year-old son is a cancer patient at the hospital, said: "This hospital is the last chance for many children, including my son Kirill...

"The state barely gives us any help, and in this case it is even doing the opposite of helping."

Russia's conservative Orthodox Church spoke out on the issue too.

"I imagine that the community of Russian judges... would consider it morally unacceptable to receive medical care if there were even the slightest threat that the way it was organised caused suffering to children sick with cancer," said the head of the Holy Synod's information department, Vladimir Legoida in a statement on the Church's website.

The city authorities have given approval for a protest rally on Wednesday, with a capacity of up to 10,000 people, on the city's Champ de Mars square.

St Petersburg's governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, will decide the hospital's fate after hearing back from the city council's health committee, Russia's regional news agency Regnum reports.

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