Death rate doubles in Moscow's heat crisis

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Scorching heat and acrid smoke have nearly doubled death rates in Moscow, a city official said on Monday, as smog from raging forest and peat fires shrouded Russia’s capital for a third week.

Firefighters battled wildfires covering 1,740 square km (672 sq miles) -- an area bigger than Greater London -- in what the chief state weather forecaster said he believed to be Russia’s worst heat wave for a millennium.

“The average death rate in the city during normal times is between 360 and 380 people per day. Today, we are around 700,” Andrei Seltsovsky, Moscow’s health department chief, told a city government meeting.

Russia’s worst drought in decades has spooked world grain markets, driving wheat prices up at the fastest rate in more than 30 years and raising the specter of a food crisis.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned on Monday that the harvest could be as low as 60 million tons, lower than many analysts had expected.

Kremlin critics have blamed Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, for what they call a sluggish and ineffective government response to the fires, but opinion polls have so far shown no decline in his popularity.

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Moscow’s health chief Seltsovsky broke weeks of official silence on the wider health effects of the smoke and heat, saying that ambulance dispatches were up by about a quarter to 10,000 a day.

Heat stroke was the main cause of the recent increase in deaths and problems linked to heart disease, bronchial asthma and strokes had risen.

“This is no secret,” Seltsovsky said. “Everyone thinks we’re making secrets out of it. It’s 40 degrees (Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit) on the street. Abroad, people drown like flies and no one asks questions.”

Russian officials had announced that 52 people had been killed by fires that have ravaged forests and fields but until Monday neither federal nor Moscow authorities had announced data on deaths from the heat and pollution.

That has given rise to suspicion of a Soviet-style cover-up in the face of criticism of the government’s handling of the wildfire crisis.

Health Minister Tatyana Golikova said at a news conference that she had no information about the rise in the death rate in Moscow, but morgues and hospitals were overcrowded.

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A sign in one Moscow crematorium said it was fully booked and taking no new orders.

“Today we have 80 bodies. We store them anywhere we can because the refrigerators are full,” an attendant at Hospital No. 62’s morgue, designed to hold up to 35 corpses, told Reuters.

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Putin announced last week a grain export ban from August 15 to December 31, sending prices higher and hurting shares of brewers such as Carlsberg and Heineken.

Putin said on Monday that the ban on grain exports could be extended beyond the end of the year. “If someone is waiting for December 31, he is waiting in vain. A decision may be taken only after the harvesting campaign results are clear,” he told a government meeting.

“The latest crop forecast by the Agriculture Ministry is 65 million tons, but it may be 60 million tons,” he said.

Putin added that the situation was aggravated by the fact that some important regions would not be able to start the winter-sowing campaign.

The weather outlook is little changed for this week, with a slight drop in temperatures forecast for later in the week.

SovEcon, a leading agricultural analyst, said on Monday that Russia’s wheat crop might be about one third smaller than last year’s, dropping to 43 million tons from 61.7 million tons in 2009.

In neighboring Ukraine, the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter in the 2009/10 season, analysts and officials cut crop and export forecasts.

Russia’s main sugar lobby warned on Monday that the drought may hamper this year’s sugar beet output, reducing it from the earlier expected 4 million tons to 3.2-3.5 million tons.

The downgraded beet forecast is not expected to change Russia’s import needs as it has large domestic reserves. Almost all sugar produced in Russia is consumed domestically.

Russia has begun to feel the wider economic effects of the drought and heatwave, which have prompted banks and businesses to reduce staffing and slowed activity in the service sector.

Alfa Bank, a Moscow investment bank, said it would not publish a daily research bulletin on Monday or Tuesday.

“Owing to severe weather in Moscow, there is only a limited presence at the bank,” an Alfa official said in an e-mail.

Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Steve Gutterman and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by David Stamp