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Improving child and maternal health amidst conflict in Afghanistan

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1152/Noorani
A woman doctor shows a new mother how to hold her infant while breastfeeding at Saleha Bayat Hospital in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in the northern Afghan province of Balkh.

By David Koch

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, 5 February 2009 – A child's first right is the right to life. But in today's Afghanistan, children face some of the most difficult challenges to their survival in the world.

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The past eight years have yielded notable progress in Afghanistan. Among the improvements are increased overall access to health care, the near eradication of polio and improved access to clean water. But today it's becoming increasingly difficult to build on these successes due to limited access to remote communities.

In order to overcome these challenges, UNICEF's mission is clear: to promote better child health and nutrition with a package of across-the-board interventions developed with the Ministry of Public Health and dozens of partners.

Reducing infant and maternal mortality

A key objective of UNICEF's health and nutrition programme is to reduce infant and maternal mortality by supporting and strengthening national health systems. Afghanistan has some of the world's most alarming negative indicators in these areas.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1076/Noorani
A boy receives oral polio vaccine outside Poli Clinic in the Herat Bazaar neighbourhood of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

UNICEF provides incubators for premature babies and supports therapeutic feeding units for malnourished children. In many cases, mothers are too ill to feed their own children.

Alia Kochi, head of the Paediatric Unit at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, describes the situation in her ward: "We face many challenges. All these mothers here are suffering from malnutrition themselves.

"At the same time, they have to breast-feed their children," she continues. "They are living in poverty. They cannot buy nutritious food for the children from the market. There is a complete insecurity here. We hope UNICEF continues to provide us regularly with supplies to treat these malnourished children."

Along with dozens of partners, UNICEF helps run expanded programmes on immunization to control preventable diseases such as measles and polio. In Kandahar province, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other partners vaccinate all children under five crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan – two of the four remaining countries where polio is endemic.

Increasing skilled delivery

Ensuring that mothers receive antenatal care and assistance during delivery by skilled birth attendants is crucial to lowering the staggering rate of maternal mortality. Today, however, far too few pregnant Afghan women have access to medical attention when they deliver their babies – whether for cultural, economic or geographic reasons.

"We have the highest maternal mortality rate in Bamyan province because of our remoteness," says Governor Habiba Suhrabi.

UNICEF supports programmes to expand antenatal care for pregnant women. They are providing increased access to skilled assistance at delivery, breastfeeding education and training for hospital staff and community health workers.

Partnerships for development

UNICEF is working to achieve progress in this challenging environment through partnerships. These alliances extend to communities and children themselves, as well as non-governmental organizations, other UN agencies and donors.

On the ground in hospitals, clinics, schools and homes each day, UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure that Afghanistan's children realize their right to get the healthiest possible start in life, and thrive long into adulthood.




UNICEF correspondent Jane O’Brien reports on efforts by UNICEF and its partners to improve maternal and child health amidst continuing insecurity in Afghanistan.
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