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World Health Day, plight of Afghanistan's children cause for concern

KABUL, 6 April 2003 - On the occasion of World Health Day, which is celebrated on 7 April, the United Nations Children's Fund is drawing attention to the continuing health and nutritional problems faced by millions of children and women in Afghanistan.

According to UNICEF, Afghanistan ranks as the fourth worst country in the world in terms of under-five mortality, with one in four children not surviving beyond their fifth birthday. The infant mortality rate is amongst the highest in the world, at 165 per 1,000 live births, while Afghanistan's maternal mortality ratio is equally alarming at 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

UNICEF points to a number of factors that continue to impact on the health of the country's women and children. Major causes of mortality among children include diarrhoea, acute respiratory infection, malaria and micronutrient deficiencies. Chronic malnutrition remains prevalent in Afghanistan. A survey conducted in Badghis province in 2002 showed a 58% prevalence of chronic malnutrition and 7% of acute malnutrition among children under five years of age. Iodine deficiency is common in women, resulting in low birth weight, deafness, and cretinism in new-borns - lack of iodine is believed to contribute to a reduced IQ level of up to 15 points in some parts of Afghanistan. Poor complementary feeding, breastfeeding practices and lack of nutrient-dense complementary foods are important factors leading to the high prevalence of chronic malnutrition.

UNICEF also reports a number of successes in tackling Afghanistan's continuing health and nutrition difficulties. More than six million children were immunized against polio in 2002 on five separate occasions, while reported cases of measles dropped from 400 per month to just 94 per month during last year, helped by a major immunization campaign that reached eleven million children. In the first months of 2003, more than 700,000 women were vaccinated against neo-natal tetanus. In 2002, more than 300,000 children benefited from supplementary and therapeutic feeding programmes supported by UNICEF, while the first Centre of Excellence for Obstetric Care was established at Kabul's Malalai Maternity Hospital and the first training programmes for auxiliary midwives were undertaken in eastern Afghanistan.

Against this background UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan, Dr. Sharad Sapra, said today "Failing to tackle the health and nutritional challenges of Afghanistan will impede any serious long-term development in this country. The health of the population is directly related to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. UNICEF has therefore committed its support to a number of critical activities, amongst which are the establishment of emergency obstetric care facilities in every province of the country, an investment of US$16 million to immunization programmes for children and women, support to 25 therapeutic feeding centres within Ministry of Health hospitals across Afghanistan, and the establishment of eight salt iodation plants across the country to help reduce the incidence of goiter, and mental and physical stunting caused by iodine deficiency."

Dr Sapra added "While the international community has to date been a generous supporter of health programmes in Afghanistan, there remain gaps in funding in critical areas such as maternal health. For many years, the outside world expressed outrage and anger at the restrictions placed on women's access to health in this country; the time for such outrage has now passed. What we need is long-term commitment to investing in projects that serve to strengthen women's and children's rights to quality health care. The statistics announced today clearly underline that much work remains to be done to improve the health of every woman and children in Afghanistan; that work can only begin if all concerned - the Government of Afghanistan, organizations like UNICEF, WHO and our partners - are given the means with which we can undertake the task."

To date in 2003, UNICEF has received 65% of the US$ 35 million required to undertake its health programmes in partnership with the Afghan Ministry of Health. However, in the area of maternal health there remains a shortfall of nearly US$ 4 million - 46% of the funding required for this area of UNICEF's work in Afghanistan.


For more information, please contact:

Edward Carwardine, UNICEF-Media, Kabul +93 (0) 702 74729





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