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UNICEF: Aid Urgently Needed in Afghanistan - 2002-12-28

About 600,000 people in Afghanistan are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance according to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). It says the aid will be needed throughout the harsh winter months. UNICEF says most of those in need are internally displaced or returning refugees.

UNICEF says it is easier for aid agencies to work in Afghanistan now that the Taleban regime is gone, but the situation remains very fragile.

The children's agency says ongoing regional fighting, rising crime rates and prolonged droughts continue to put pressure on the survival and welfare of people throughout the country. Children and women are seen as particularly vulnerable.

In a telephone interview from Kabul, the UNICEF representative in Afghanistan, Edward Carwardine, said children and women suffer major health problems. He noted that Afghanistan has the fourth highest infant mortality rate in the world.

"A recent study, which came out in November, showed that for every 100,000 live births, somewhere in the region of 1,600 women die as a result of problems in pregnancy," said Mr. Carwardine. "Nutritional status is particularly low. Again, for communities that have been affected by the drought, for the displaced communities that are moving around the country."

Mr. Carwardine said winters in Afghanistan are particularly difficult and that the agency is doing what it can to minimize the problems, which will arise. For instance, he says, aid workers are trying to make sure that essential supplies of warm clothes, medicines, high energy food and other relief items are distributed to particularly vulnerable communities.

Although the situation in many respects remains bleak, Mr. Carwardine said aid workers are generally upbeat about the outlook. He noted a number of successes, especially in terms of immunization. "Over the last year, some nine million children have been immunized against measles; some six million children immunized against polio. Coverage levels almost up to 100 percent now for those two particular diseases. So, great strides have been made," he emphasized.

However, Mr. Carwardine said there are concerns that refugees returning from Pakistan, one of the countries bordering Afghanistan, might bring the polio virus with them. Therefore, he said UNICEF aid workers are literally waiting at the borders to immunize people against polio as they cross into Afghanistan.