Aid groups warned Wednesday that a spike in COVID-19 infections and an alarming measles outbreak have compounded the health emergencies in Afghanistan, stretching the impoverished, war-torn country’s fragile health care system.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a statement that urgent global support, including health and testing services, as well as vaccinations, was needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus that is surging across Afghanistan.
“A new wave is hitting Afghanistan hard. Testing is inadequate, and the World Health Organization reports that almost half of tested samples are coming back positive, indicating an alarming spread of the virus,” the statement added.
It said the underfunded and understaffed national health system was struggling to cope with the surge in cases. Dozens of COVID-19 health facilities have closed because they didn’t have enough medicines, essential medical supplies and funds to pay the utilities and health workers’ salaries.
The aid group said that fewer than 10 of the country’s 37 public COVID-19 health facilities remained functional, and that they were unable to keep up with demand. Only 10% of the country’s estimated population of 40 million is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Mawlawi Mutiul Haq Khales, the acting president of Afghan Red Crescent, stressed the need for increasing the number of functional health facilities so that pressure can be eased on the few functioning hospitals.
“As the number of COVID-19 infections increases from cities to remote corners of the country, the international community needs to open up the doors to support critical health care, testing and other essential services before it’s too late for the people of Afghanistan,” Khales said.
The Taliban takeover of the country in August prompted international donors to suspend foreign aid, impose financial sanctions and freeze billions of dollars in Afghan foreign cash reserves, mostly held in the United States. The restrictions triggered economic upheavals, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that stems from years of war and a persistent drought.
The U.N. World Food Program estimates nearly 23 million people, or 55% of the country’s population, suffer from severe hunger, saying around 9 million of them are a step away from famine. More than 3 million children suffer from severe malnutrition.
The IFRC noted in its statement that the measles outbreak has infected thousands and killed dozens of people in the last month in Afghanistan.
“The measles outbreak is alarming since Afghanistan is in the middle of one of the worst droughts and food crises in decades, leaving children malnourished and far more vulnerable to the highly contagious disease,” said Necephor Mghendi, IFRC’s country head.
Doctors Without Borders, an international charity known by its French acronym MSF, said in a separate statement that most of its programs, including those in southern Helmand and western Herat provinces, have seen high numbers of patients. It described the malnutrition rates as concerning.
“MSF is treating a high number of patients with measles in our projects in Helmand and Herat. Our teams are concerned about how the situation will progress unless more children are vaccinated against the disease,” the charity said.
The ripple effect of long-running sanctions on the Taliban and the financial measures against the new rulers in Afghanistan are being felt nationwide, according to MSF.
“The country faces near economic and institutional collapse, and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and are struggling to find work,” it said.