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WHO Warns of Looming Health Crisis in Afghanistan - 2001-09-21

The World Health Organization, WHO, warns that people in Afghanistan will become increasingly susceptible to disease the longer the humanitarian crisis goes on in the region. WHO says health care has deteriorated since U.N. and international aid workers pulled out of the country.

The World Health Organization says Afghanistan's health care is almost completely dependent on international assistance. It says such assistance is no longer available, since all international aid agencies left Afghanistan, fearing possible United States reprisals for terrorist attacks.

WHO Emergency Officer Hilary Bower has just returned from Afghanistan and neighboring countries. She says, before the crisis, the health situation in Afghanistan was bad, and now, it is likely to get worse. She says the country suffers from very high levels of malnutrition, especially among children under five years of age. "Malnourishment makes people vulnerable. Movement makes people vulnerable," Ms. Bower says. "They are exposed to poor conditions, poor services. And, they have very little access to health care. These kind of conditions then make very high risk for epidemic diseases such as cholera. There has been an ongoing outbreak of cholera in Afghanistan, and the people moving will exacerbate this."

WHO has recorded an estimated 5,000 cholera cases and 100 deaths. Ms. Bower says respiratory infections have always been a killer among young children in Afghanistan. She says population movement, exposure and poor sanitation will increase the number of infections. She says people coming over the border as refugees also are highly exposed. She says measles and malaria are likely to increase.

Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Ms. Bower says 45 percent of Afghanistan's population consists of women of child-bearing age. She says she fears the current abnormal conditions will cause many more women to die in childbirth.

Ms. Bower says United Nations and international aid agencies are preparing to help people who come across the borders, and to help them when they can return to Afghanistan. "We need really to know how and when diseases flare up," she says. "It may seem very boring to talk about a surveillance system. But, in emergency situations, if you are able to know when a disease starts to flare up, then you can deal with preventive action and treatment."

Ms. Bower says WHO is trying to get stocks of medicines to treat diseases into the border areas. She says it also is important to bring in medical supplies for safe births.