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The ‘miracle’ of triplets in Afghanistan

“We have rescued a lot of newborns” – the community health workers of Afghanistan

At local health centre, about an hour from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, there is an air of subdued jubilation amongst the community workers gathered there. For the first time anyone can remember a young mother has delivered a set of triplets safely. They tell me that they knew from the size of her tummy when she was pregnant, that there was more than one baby inside. But no-one expected three!

This is an almost miraculous outcome because being pregnant in Afghanistan is tough and dangerous. On the way through the dusty, crowded streets of Kabul, the Save the Children Health co-ordinator explains some of the traditions which help make the country one of the worst places on earth to deliver a baby.

Here are a few I can mention – others are too gruesome to write here. During delivery, the baby is sometimes forced out by pushing on the abdomen. Babies are delivered on a bed of soil, as the afterbirth is considered ‘dirty’. So too is the vital, life-giving first milk – or colostrum – which means the baby isn’t breast-fed for up to three days after the birth, being given instead black tea or softened butter. Distressingly, the umbilical cord is cut sometimes on top of dried dung – as the belief is that this will bring good luck with livestock, or on top of metal coins in the hope that the child will grow up to be rich.

Power of prayer often preferred to medical help

Rarely are pregnant women or newborn babies taken to the hospital or health clinic: the power of prayer is often preferred over medical help, which is regarded with suspicion. Not surprisingly then, many die, at home, of appalling preventable causes.

The ladies sitting in Guldara Health clinic are a simple solution to this complex problem. Instead of waiting for patients to turn up at the clinic, these local women have been trained as community health workers to take basic health messages — about good diet, the importance of rest, recognising danger signs and doling out iron tablets to combat anaemia — into the homes of villagers. Crucially, they also encourage families not to give birth at home, but to seek help in the hospital or health centre.

They tell me how, at first, they are regarded with suspicion by husbands and mothers-in-law. But gradually, as the number of successful births has mounted, that scepticism has turned into support and recognition.

Thirty year old Fazila drops by the clinic for a check-up. She is cradling a drowsy two year old in her arms. With her two previous children, she almost bled to death as she struggled to give birth with only her mother and sister present. For her third pregnancy, Save the Children’s community health workers advised her throughout the nine months, and when the time came to deliver, she did so safely in hospital.

This is just one of 450 successful births in the area since the project began. “We have rescued a lot of newborns from death. Thank you for that,” says a grateful Guldara woman, which just goes to show a little bit of knowledge can go an awfully long way in Afghanistan.

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