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Afghanistan: Hope and heroes

Doctors and nurses rushed to a bed in Khulm District Hospital as little Ahmadullah fought for his life. Only four days old and ill with neo-natal sepsis — a potentially fatal blood infection — it was going to be touch and go whether he lived.

The head doctor immediately referred him to a bigger hospital 60km away in Mazar-i-Sharif, and the nurses placed an oxygen mask over his tiny face to help with his struggling breathing. His mum held onto the bars at the end of the bed, wiping tears away.

Like many other newborn babies in Afghanistan, Ahmadullah had been infected from a dirty scalpel cutting his umbilical cord. Thankfully his parents were able to get him to the District Hospital in time, where he was expertly cared for and given a chance of survival.

A quiet revolution

This life-saving scene is part of a quiet revolution changing Afghanistan for the better. Not very long ago, one in five children died here from preventable illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhoea, and one in 11 mums died from causes relating to pregnancy or childbirth.

Now new data by the Afghan government says deaths have been cut dramatically, to one in ten children and one in 50 mothers.

I saw first hand the reason why progress has been made. The heroes are frontline health workers — doctors, nurses and midwives. On my five-day visit to Afghanistan I saw again and again the difference they were making, literally transforming the communities they served.

Every woman, every child

In Balkh province, in the north of Afghanistan, I visited a village with two amazing women who had been trained by Save the Children: chief community health worker, Nafasgul, and volunteer health worker, Sediqua.

Sediqua showed me her map of the village. Every house was marked and she explained how she monitored every pregnant women and every malnourished child, and how she educated local families on family planning and how to prepare nutritious food.

She said that only a few years ago all women had their babies at home, very few families accepted vaccinations and sanitation was poor. Now, thanks to their efforts, the community is behind their work. Babies are being delivered at a small, local clinic by a trained midwife, and 85% of children are vaccinated.

A life sentence

But progress in Afghanistan is threatened by a massive challenge still endangering the lives of millions of children: malnutrition. More than 30,000 children already die every year in Afghanistan because of malnutrition, and a severe drought here in the north of the country has left thousands more children dangerously hungry.

Malnutrition isn’t just putting children’s lives at risk. If children become chronically malnourished before the age of two, they suffer the effects their whole lives. Not necessarily because they don’t have enough to eat, but because they’re not eating the right, nutritious food.

And this results in a condition called stunting, which leaves children weaker, shorter, with lower IQs and likely to drop out of school early.

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Mohammed dear

Shockingly, in Afghanistan, nearly 60% of children are stunted — that’s 3 million across the country. Many families I met are only able to feed their children on bread and tea because their crops have failed and the price of wheat has risen by 60% since last year.

Take Mohammed Jan, or ‘Mohammed dear’ — a tiny seven-month-old baby I met at another district hospital supported by Save the Children. When he arrived at the clinic he weighed a frail 4.6kg, less than some newborn babies.

His mum told me she had been forced to leave her home because of the drought, and she was unable to feed her baby son properly.

Thankfully community health workers had identified him as an urgent case so he was rushed to hospital. Within three days, his weight increased significantly.

The reason for hope

Afghanistan is a desperately poor country and has huge challenges but I have come away hopeful by the resilience of the people. And the progress they’re making.

On my flight back from Mazar to Kabul I met the head of our midwife clinic in Jowzjan, Dr Malia Enayat, who was coming to Kabul to do some training.

She’s an amazing woman. In her province ten years ago there were only four midwives for almost half a million people. At her midwife school, paid for by Save the Children, she has trained nearly 150 young women. They will each deliver more than 500 newborns a year, saving thousands of mums and babies.

They, and the volunteer heath workers teaching mums about safe childbirth and proper nutrition, are the true heroes of Afghanistan and the reason for hope.

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