An estimated 3.2 million children under the age of 5 in Afghanistan are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of year, the World Health Organization said Friday.
Speaking from Kabul at a UN press conference in Geneva, spokeswoman Margaret Harris said that the WHO is fearful for the fate of medical services in the country as hospital staff have not been paid for at least eight months.
"WHO has continued to deliver help and ensure the continuation of essential health services to save lives throughout the crisis in Afghanistan," she said, pointing out that "winter is not coming. It is here."
"But that work cannot be done without the support of the international community and donors…. We need that help to keep coming. And we need to do more," Harris said, thanking those who provided finance and lifesaving supplies.
She said that the poor working conditions for healthcare workers in Afghanistan had preceded the current crisis.
"Many of the people working in the primary health care centers tell us they haven't been paid since March or even earlier," said Harris.
The WHO official said malnutrition continues as a growing health challenge across Afghanistan, as an anticipated 3.2 million children under the age of 5 are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of 2021.
"At least 1 million of these children are at risk of dying due to severe acute malnutrition, without immediate treatment," said Harris.
The WHO has sent supplies to 47 therapeutic feeding centers across 23 provinces and provided medicines and feeding sets for 30 malnutrition feeding centers.
But worsening food insecurity will exacerbate the situation, especially taking a heavy toll on the health of Afghan children.
As malnutrition grips the country, a coordinated UN response backed by donor support is needed to address the growing crisis urgently, Harris said.
Fuel, electricity and medical supplies remain short at many health facilities across the country.
Disease surveillance needed
"Disease surveillance, testing and vaccination against infectious diseases need to be urgently enhanced to better monitor and respond to outbreaks to prevent avoidable deaths," said the WHO spokeswoman.
She said that already a measles outbreak is raging and there are new cases every day.
"Since January 2021, there have been more than 24,000 clinical measles cases, 2,397 laboratory-confirmed cases of measles, and 87 deaths reported. For malnourished children, measles is a death sentence," said Harris.
Support is also needed to sustain the tertiary hospitals, including the 37 coronavirus treatment hospitals that are not covered under the funding provided by the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund, she added.
"Without this, the COVID-19 response will face a severe setback," Harris explained.
"As of 10 November, there have been 156,414 confirmed cases with 7,291 reported deaths. In the past weeks, reported numbers have declined by 39%, but testing is also declining, and surveillance and testing are suboptimal."
The world cannot afford to turn its back on Afghanistan, said the WHO spokeswoman, as the cost of inaction rises as every day passes.
"This is not just a handout with a begging bowl; this is an investment. The cost of inaction is enormous. We need to do more," said Harris.