Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Lack of access may spread diseases, Health Ministry warns

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KABUL, 2 November 2008 (IRIN) - Afghanistan's high maternal and infant mortality rates could increase and deadly diseases such as malaria could resurface if insurgents continue attacking health workers and impede access to vulnerable communities, the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) has warned.

Minister of Health Mohammad Amin Fatemi on 1 November spoke of a "possible resurgence of deadly diseases" and warned of the adverse impact of insecurity on overall healthcare.

Health officials are particularly concerned about the spread of pneumonia and respiratory diseases in winter months if people do not have access to medical care.

Cold weather-related illnesses killed hundreds of people, mostly the elderly and children, throughout the country last winter, according to the Afghan government.

The MoPH and aid agencies have repeatedly called on Taliban insurgents to ensure access to areas under their influence for humanitarian aid and health services. The insurgents have, however, turned a deaf ear to such calls, aid agencies say.

Compounding factors

Millions of Afghans have been affected by high food prices, drought, crop failure, armed conflict and other disasters, aid workers say. Lack of food and/or poor nutrition has caused deteriorating health in women and children, making access to healthcare all the more important, Abdullah Fahim, spokesman for the MoPH, told IRIN.

"Food insecurity has made already vulnerable people even more vulnerable," Fahim said.

The MoPH said it has delivered supplies of medicines to health facilities across the country for use over the coming six months. But without security, patients will not benefit from these medicines.

"We need a secure environment to diagnose diseases and treat patients," Fahim said.

Health achievements under threat

Over the past several years, the MoPH, backed by donors and NGOs, has managed to expand basic public health services to almost 80 percent of the country, thus reducing the under-five mortality rate from 165 per 1,000 live births in 2002 to 125 in 2008.

The MoPH said it has also reduced malaria cases by over 50 percent.

However, armed attacks on health workers and facilities have forced shut dozens of health centres in the volatile south and southeast of the country. At least 51 health centres were torched and/or damaged in deliberate armed attacks from January 2007 to June 2008, according to the MoPH .

In the southern province of Kandahar - often described as the stronghold of the insurgency - there is no health facility at all in five out of its 13 districts, the provincial health department said on 2 November.

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