Rising health risks for children across Afghanistan as disruption to health and nutrition services continues and winter sets in

Pneumonia, Acute Respiratory Illness, measles, acute watery diarrhea and other preventable diseases affecting children as acute malnutrition puts millions at risk

22 December 2021
Afghanistan, Kandahar: During a mobile health and nutrition team visit in Nasaji village, a nutrition nurse measures arm circumference of a child to determine their nutiritonal status in Nasaji village in Kandahar province.
UNICEF/UN0562536/Romenzi
Afghanistan, Kandahar: During a mobile health and nutrition team visit in Nasaji village, a nutrition nurse measures arm circumference of a child to determine their nutiritonal status in Nasaji village in Kandahar province.

KABUL, 22 December 2021 – Children across Afghanistan are increasingly vulnerable to disease and illness due to the deadly combination of rising malnutrition, an unprecedented food crisis, drought, disruptions to vital health and nutrition centres, lack of access to and poor quality of water and sanitation services, and crippling winter weather.  

As the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan, outbreaks of life-threatening diseases are putting children’s lives at risk. More than 66,000 cases of measles have so far been reported in children so far in 2021. There have also been outbreaks of acute watery diarrhoea, malaria and dengue fever. Four cases of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV-1) have been confirmed this year.  

Severe winter weather conditions, with temperatures already well below freezing in many areas, increase the risk of pneumonia and Acute Respiratory Illness (ARI) as families struggle to heat their homes and keep their children warm. Children living in high altitude regions are especially vulnerable and require urgent life-saving assistance including winter clothing, blankets and fuel for heating. Some 25-30 per cent of deaths in children below the age of five are due to respiratory tract infections, with 90 per cent of these deaths due to pneumonia.  

“We are approaching a critical juncture for Afghanistan’s children, as winter brings with it a multitude of threats to their health,” said Abdul Kadir Musse, UNICEF Afghanistan Representative a.i. “There is no time to lose. Without urgent, concerted action - including ensuring we have the resources to deploy additional cash transfers and winter supplies - many of the country’s children will not live to see spring.” 

Earlier this month, UNICEF launched its largest-ever single-country appeal to respond to the needs of over 24 million people in Afghanistan, half of whom are children. UNICEF’s appeal for US$2 billion aims to help avert the collapse of health, nutrition, WASH, education and other vital social services for children and families.  

Last month, UNICEF provided more than 10,000 front-line health workers in over 1,000 health facilities with salaries for November and supported over 1,000 health facilities with medical supplies and winter heating materials.  UNICEF also provided critical primary health care services, including immunization, through health facilities and mobile health and nutrition teams. UNICEF vaccinated nearly 105,000 children aged between 6 months and five years old against measles. A nationwide polio campaign reached 8.5 million children, including over 2 million children living in previously inaccessible areas. In the same month, UNICEF was able to treat more than 37,000 children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition; provided over 22,000 people with access to safe water, including through water trucking; and distributed cash to the provinces with the highest poverty rate and most severe winter conditions, along with winter clothes.  

UNICEF estimates that 1 in 2 children under five will be acutely malnourished in 2022 due to the food crisis and poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene services.  

Guided by humanitarian principles, UNICEF will prioritize life-saving interventions to treat children and provide other vital services. UNICEF’s response will help ensure continuity of essential services by preventing the collapse of systems that are critical for children, while also safeguarding hard-won gains, including protecting the rights of women and girls. UNICEF counts on the support of the international community by facilitating exemptions to sanctions to ensure the timely provision of goods and services to the children of Afghanistan.     

Media contacts

Joe English
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 917 893 0692
Salam Al-Janabi
UNICEF Afghanistan
Tel: +93 79 998 7111

Multimedia content

Afghanistan, Kandahar: Nazia, hold her one-year-old daughter Aqsad as she talks to a UNICEF Nutrition Officer at Mirza Mohammad Khan clinic in Kandahar. Aqsad was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition and has recieved a 3rd round of UNICEF-provided Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food (RUTF) from this health facility.
Afghanistan, Kandahar: Nazia, hold her one-year-old daughter Aqsad as she talks to a UNICEF Nutrition Officer at Mirza Mohammad Khan clinic in Kandahar. Aqsad was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition and has recieved a 3rd round of UNICEF-provided Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food (RUTF) from this health facility.

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