Naghma’s love for life

Fighting malnutrition in war-torn Afghanistan

By Monique Awad
UNICEF Afghanistan/2020/Muzlifa Khan
29 June 2020

Kandahar, Afghanistan, 18 June 2020 – At Mirwais Regional Hospital,28-year old Gulseeka is sitting at the edge of the hospital bed, holding her sick baby girl Naghma. 

“I have seven children, and Naghma is my youngest child,” says Gulseeka looking at her 11-month old baby. 

Naghma suffered from diarrhea and vomiting, and became very weak.  Like most illiterate mothers in Afghanistan, Gulseeka reverted to traditional means to treat her sick baby. 

“I used traditional recipes to treat Naghma, but her condition worsened,” says Gulseeka with sadness.

Naghma’s condition got worse.  Her mother had no choice but to bring her to Mirwais Regional Hospital, a governmental hospital in Kandahar city, southern Afghanistan.

“I brought Naghma to the hospital because she became very frail and lost weight,” adds Gulseeka.

After examination, Naghma was diagnosed to be suffering from severe acute malnutrition.  She was admitted to the hospital, and was treated using ready-to-use therapeutic food, while advising her mother to continue to breast feed her regularly.

Every year in Afghanistan, close to three million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition.  Out of these children, approximately 780,000 suffer from its most severe form, putting their lives at higher risk of diseases, including death.

Amid COVID19 pandemic and according to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 1.2 million children could die from preventable diseases within the next six months globally.   In Afghanistan, it is estimated that up to 13,000 additional under five years of age children could die from preventable diseases, including undernutrition within the next six months. 

“After five days of hospitalization, I can see that Naghma is getting better,” says Gulseeka with a sigh. 

UNICEF Afghanistan/2020/Muzlifa Khan
A health worker is checking on 11-month old Naghma who was admitted to Mirwais Regional Hospital, since she was suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Kandahar, Afghanistan

Upended life
In Afghanistan, the Corona virus pandemic has upended family life, especially that of Gulseeka.  With one out of two people living in poverty, the pandemic has further exacerbated living conditions, especially for the most vulnerable.

“For the past two months, my husband Ismat did not receive his salary, making our life unbearable,” says Gulseeka. 

Ismat earns a very meagre salary.  He is also illiterate, and works with the National Afghan Police.

 “And to make things worse, Ismat does not come home regularly, since he was asked to work far away from home,” adds Gulseeka.

Given their dire situation, Gulseeka had to ration food.  She can no longer secure nutritious meals for her seven children.
“Following the lifting of the lockdown, the number of sick children have increased,” says Dr. Mohmmad Sidiq Khan, Director of Pediatric Ward at Mirwais Regional Hospital.

Amid COVID19 pandemic, and due to poverty,  the hospital receives 180-200 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition every month. 

Mirwais Regional Hospital is under-staffed. There is a need for an increased number of qualified nurses, especially females.  And given the high number of severely acute malnourished children, the hospital does not have sufficient treatment supplies, especially ready-to-use therapeutic food. 

Thanks to our donors, Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund; Central Emergency Response Fund; EU Humanitarian Aid - ECHO; Governments of Italy and Japan; USAID Food For Peace and flexible donors to UNICEF’s Regular Resources and Global Humanitarian Thematic Fund, UNICEF supplies ready-to-use therapeutic food across all provinces in Afghanistan.

Sadly enough, and given the increased number of children suffering from malnutrition, UNICEF supplies are not enough to treat all children.

With partners,  UNICEF also counsels  mothers on infant and young child feeding practices, especially breast feeding, and builds the capacity of health workers.

The pandemic has worsened the situation for attending physicians as well.  With limited availability of personal protective equipment, frontline health workers are worried.

“At the beginning, I was very stressed.  As a frontline worker, I was concerned about myself, my family and my colleagues,” says Dr. Khan.  “We are taking extra precautionary measures to protect ourselves and our patients from the spread of the disease.”

Yet, despite the dire situation, Dr. Khan is very proud to be able to save the life of every child.