Health

Ending preventable maternal, newborn and child deaths

A mother holds her two days old son’s hand after giving birth in the Herat Maternity Hospital in western Afghanistan.
UNICEF/UNI183578/Wahidy

Challenge

No child or mother should suffer and die from preventable causes. Yet Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a baby, a child or a mother and access to a hospital or health facility is beyond the reach of most. The country has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and thousands of Afghan women die every year from pregnancy-related causes, a majority of which are easily preventable. 

Although present conditions are improving, and many more children are living past infancy, in 2015 more than one in 18 Afghan children died before their first birthday. While this is a significant drop from more than twice that in 1990, far too many families are unnecessarily losing their children, especially during the neonatal period. The majority of these deaths can be prevented with healthy behaviours, timely and adequate care, and treatment.

Children and mothers need access to quality community-based healthcare and comprehensive emergency obstetric and newborn care at district and provincial hospitals. This is critical in the first days of a child’s life and during a mother’s labour and delivery, particularly for women who have complicated pregnancies.

Up to the age of five, and especially in the first weeks and months of a child’s life, protection against preventable illnesses is critical. Low immunization levels among poor and marginalized children compromise gains made in all other areas of maternal and child health. 

A mother and her children sit with a doctor during a consultation with a UNICEF-supported mobile health team in Bamyan, Afghanistan.
UNICEF/UN068804/Karimi
A mother and her children attend a consultation with a UNICEF-supported mobile health team that visits once a month in the remote village of Ali-Beig, Bamyan province, Afghanistan. These teams are a lifeline for isolated communities where the closest health facilities are often hours away.

Reaching every child

UNICEF works with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health and other partners to improve services and quality care for children and women. Focusing on the most vulnerable, UNICEF addresses the reasons these children and mothers don’t receive the health information and care they need. Using this “equity” approach, UNICEF and its partners are improving the lives and health of children and women in Afghanistan.

Investments in the most disadvantaged have helped Afghanistan reduce child mortality by 50 per cent since 1990

A mother holds her baby as he receives a vaccine at a clinic in Badakhshan, northeastern Afghanistan.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2016/Froutan
A baby receives a set of vaccines recommended for routine immunization at a health facility in the city of Faizabad, Badakhshan province, in northeastern Afghanistan.

Reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health
UNICEF, the lead UN agency addressing newborns’ needs, works to expand services in existing health facilities and reach mothers and children in remote villages. UNICEF strengthens health facilities by providing training and essential newborn care equipment, deploying mobile health outreach teams to isolated areas, and creating specialized maternity ‘waiting homes and rooms’. 

At the national level, UNICEF supports the development and roll-out of standardized national guidelines for community-based newborn care, as well as the introduction of zinc and oral rehydration solution co-packs for the treatment of diarrhoea at community level.

Routine immunization 
UNICEF works closely with the Ministry of Public Health, implementing partners and communities to immunize every child with life-saving vaccines against nine dangerous diseases, no matter how remote or inaccessible their location. To do so, UNICEF supports the Government to plan, build capacity, raise awareness, bring vaccines to children and eligible women, and make sure they are viable until administered. 

UNICEF is one of the world's largest buyers of vaccines for children

UNICEF works with the Government to provide a ‘cold chain’ of storage equipment and refrigerators across the country, even in mountainous and difficult terrain, to guarantee that the vaccines retain their potency to prevent diseases. 

While supporting the national immunization process from beginning to end, UNICEF also trains locally so that communities and local government can work independently in the future. UNICEF provides technical assistance to introduce new vaccines nationally as they are approved. In collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health, UNICEF continues its effort to eradicate poliomyelitis from Afghanistan.

The power of information
Health-systems strengthening efforts can be less visible, but they are essential for the progress of public health.

One of the most effective ways to make sure Afghan children benefit from healthy habits and proper care is by helping local and national government effectively gather and use information. UNICEF is working with partners on a national quality of health care survey in all 34 provinces: the results will provide important data on obstetric and newborn quality care for the first time on this scale.

UNICEF also supported the Ministry of Public Health to use its data systems to track performance in Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (RMNCH) Scorecards. Launched during Afghanistan’s Call to Action: A Promise Renewed in 2015, this scorecard provides quarterly data on performance for all of the 400 districts. 

This research and evaluation work centred on children’s, newborns’ and women’s health can influence national policies and programmes. It encourages focus on the needs of vulnerable populations and influences funding and resources allocated to health programmes, particularly in the often-neglected area of newborn health. 

Infographic outlining maternal, newborn, and child health strategies
UNICEF Afghanistan

The health programme in numbers 

•    In 2017, mobile health teams reached 900,000 children and pregnant women who live more than two hours away from a health facility.
•    Every year, UNICEF helps nearly 1.2 million children under one with life-saving vaccines.
•    Every year, 6 million pregnant women receive vaccines that prevent nine diseases.