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Mobile health teams: On the road saving lives in Afghanistan’s most remote areas

NANGARHAR, Afghanistan – At just one year old, Shahpirai’s son was suffering from severe malnutrition. Yet without the means or available facilities for him to receive proper health care, his mother could only hope he would improve at home.

 

Shahpirai, 30, is the sole provider for her husband and three children. “With my salary as a teacher, I could just afford to pay rent and buy food for my family, but not to seek treatment for my child,” she said.

 

Her situation took a turn for the better last July, when while walking through her village she noticed people gathered in front of an elder’s house. “I asked what was going on and learned that some doctors were treating sick women and children.”

 

The doctors were part of a UNFPA-supported mobile health team, providing medical services to those who would otherwise have limited or no access to care. In the most remote parts of Afghanistan, the nearest health facility can be over two hours’ walk away, with communities in these areas accounting for most of the country's maternal and childhood illnesses and deaths

 

Even before the current crisis, malnutrition was a critical concern in Afghanistan: according to the latest data from UNICEF, an estimated 3.2 million children under the age of five are expected to be acutely malnourished by the end of the year. 

 

From emergency to recovery 

 

Shahpirai quickly brought her son, who was by then 15 months old, to the mobile team. She was told that he was acutely malnourished and needed urgent care. “The doctor prescribed some medicine and referred my son to the Najmul Jihad Health Centre, with a note requesting immediate treatment,” she recalled. 

 

At the health centre her son was thoroughly examined, given medical and nutritional supplies, and registered in a programme for children with acute malnutrition so he could receive continuous care and be monitored closely. “I returned to the centre regularly, and after three months the doctor said my son was doing better and no longer needed therapeutic feeding. I was also instructed on how to provide him with proper nutrition at home.”

 

A still unfolding crisis

While the full ramifications of recent events in Afghanistan will only become clear over time, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that humanitarian needs in the country have already risen sharply and that the health care system has been brought to its knees. 

 

Since August this year, UNFPA has increased the number of mobile health teams it supports across Afghanistan to respond to the humanitarian health emergency. The teams have defied formidable odds to deliver essential reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health and psychosocial support services to mothers and children in hard-to-reach areas that are otherwise precariously underserved. 

 

Amid a deteriorating security situation, the teams and UNFPA-supported static emergency clinics reached nearly 50,000 people with urgent medical services in October 2021. Shahpirai says she is grateful for this life-saving support: “It had been impossible for me to find professional treatment for my son, so I’m thankful that the mobile health team regularly comes to our village to provide medical services, especially for women and children.”