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Infant mortality in the Negev is three times higher than in central Israel, stated Professor Dov Chernichovsky yesterday.

Chernichovsky, from the Department of Health Management at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, was speaking at a conference of local authority leaders in Dimona.

The infant mortality rate in the Negev is 1.6 per 1,000 live births, he said.

That's not the only indicator in which the Negev is lagging, he added.

While Tel Aviv has 1.2 physicians per 1,000 residents, and central Israel has 0.9, in the Negev the number is 0.8.

The Negev also has only 0.8 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, compared to 1.1 in central Israel.

Most communities in the south have no doctors available after 7 P.M., and long waits for specialists.

In general, the Negev is not considered an attractive region for the medical profession, Chernichovsky said.

He said access to medical services needs to be improved, as distances play an important part in the gaps between central and southern Israel.

Situation 'catastrophic'

Conference participants called the situation catastrophic.

"I have no doubt that if there were more doctors stationed at night in Yeruham, Mitzpe Ramon and in Bedouin communities, lives could be saved," said Dimona mayor Meir Cohen.

Cohen also told the conference that he had learned that Clalit Health Services is subcontracting nighttime medical services, and has different rates in different parts of the country.

"When a patient goes to see a Clalit physician in Jerusalem, the company pays the physician NIS 100 per visit. But when a person visits a doctor working with the same company in Dimona, the doctor only gets NIS 55 per visit," Cohen said. "This affects the quality of the physicians who choose to work in the Negev."

"Can it be that a child from Dimona or Yeruham is worth less than a child from Tel Aviv, or that the life of a Bedouin child from the Negev is worth less than the life of a child from Jerusalem?" Cohen asked. "It's a disgrace."

Flora Shoshan, who chairs the Mitzpe Ramon local council, said, "We lack specialists, emergency medicine is non-existent, the lives of Negev residents are abandoned during the night, the health maintenance organizations are breaking laws, the health service quality is low and we, as mayors, have to do something about it."

The participants said they will be appealing to the Supreme Court against what they said were violations of the health and emergency medicine laws.

They also said they will set up a lobbying committee in the Knesset.