23 November 2021 - Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Two babies born every minute as health system nears collapse in first 100 days of Taliban rule

A temporary shelter in Afghanistan where displaced families have fled since violence intensified in recent weeks.

Afghan women are left with no other option than to give birth at home with no medicine or pain relief.

Two babies have been born every minute since the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan 100 days ago, according to Save the Children.1  

New analysis by the organisation, using data from the UN population prospects, reveals that an estimated 333,200 infants–or two babies a minute–have been born in Afghanistan since 15 August. The analysis comes as the country’s health care system is teetering on the brink of collapse, leaving hundreds of thousands of infants and new and expectant mothers with limited access to medical care. 

International funding that financed the majority of public health care facilities in Afghanistan has been cut, leading to a shortage of health care workers, scaled-down services and a diminishing supply of medicine.

Weeks after the Taliban gained control of the country, only 17% of over 2,300 health clinics were operating2, leaving women like Samira*, 25, to a dangerous at-home delivery. The escalating violence forced  Samira* and her family to flee their home and temporarily stay with relatives. When Samira * went into labour, she was living in a rural district where the nearest health clinic was over five hours away on foot. All other hospitals were closed.

I ended up giving birth at home,” Samira* explained. “I had a very difficult delivery. There was no midwife.  Hospitals were closed, and when I gave birth, the child was not crying or breathing for almost 15 minutes. We massaged his back a lot and then after 15 minutes my child start crying.”

Medina*, a doctor with Save the Children’s mobile health team, explained that in the past 100 days, she has seen an increase in the number of women who don’t want to give birth because of the risks associated with home deliveries. 

Women who are giving birth at home can face lots of challenges, such as bleeding, asthma, and other problems. We are seeing a lot of women who are now scared to give birth,” said Medina*. “It is very good that mobile health teams are active again and can support families.

Medina* added that due to the country’s economic crisis, many families do not have the resources for safe at-home deliveries. 

As a health worker, the way we [deliver] a new baby is not the same as what mothers are doing at home. [For example,] a newborn needs clean clothes, a warm room, breastmilk, but due to the bad economic situation in Afghanistan, they do not have what is needed for the child.

For women who live close to a fully operating health facility, staff shortages, limited medical supplies, and frequent power outages are making high-risk pregnancies and emergency caesarean sections especially risky.

“I have heard from my health colleagues in rural districts and communities, of women giving birth in total darkness. Sometimes there is no electricity [in the health clinic] and the generator does not have fuel to work, so they have to give birth with little light,” explained Zuleika*, a midwife with Save the Children’s mobile health team. 

As winter approaches, health care workers are faced with new challenges to keep women and newborns healthy.

“We need heaters so the delivery room is warm. If a baby is born underweight, we have to ensure the room is warm enough so we don’t lose them, the same applies to mothers. If the mother faces bleeding, and the room is cold, we will face challenges in her treatment,” explained Zuleika*. 

Newborns and nursing mothers in Afghanistan also face a heightened risk of succumbing to malnutrition this winter as the country battles one of the world’s largest food crises. 

Save the Children is calling for international donors to urgently increase humanitarian funding and ensure it reaches the most vulnerable newborns, children and mothers in Afghanistan. 

Thomas Howells, Save the Children’s acting Country Director said: 

“Even before the political turmoil, Afghanistan was one of the most dangerous places to give birth or be a child. The situation is now unimaginable. The health crisis sweeping the country means many women are being forced to give birth at home, with little to no medical supervision. This not only puts women’s lives in grave danger but also their children’s. 

Although access to lifesaving medicine and services is declining throughout the country, the number of babies being born isn’t. Our mobile health teams are telling us that the babies born in the past 100 days are very weak. The odds are stacked against these children before they are even born. 

“No child or mother should die from preventable causes. It is imperative all children and mothers have access to quality health care at local and regional hospitals.” 

Save the Children’s mobile health teams are providing primary, newborn and maternal health services, as well as mental health and nutrition activities to the most vulnerable children and pregnant and nursing mothers. The organisation is also providing counselling on recommended feeding practices to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, complementary feeding, and providing children diverse and nutritious diets.  

*Names changed for privacy

(1)Based on UN data published in its World Population Prospects, an estimated 1,216,175 births are expected in 2021 and therefore 333,199 births every 100 days (100/365*1,216,175). This equals to approximately 3,332 babies a day or 2.3 babies a minute.   

(2) According to the World Health Organization in September, 17% of the over 2,300 health facilities previously supported by the World Bank, are fully functional, two-thirds of which have run out of essential medicines. Afghanistan: Rapid decline in public health conditions, WHO warns | | UN News 

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