The World Health Organisation has called for urgent action to be taken to tackle a critical shortage of medical supplies in Afghanistan as the humanitarian crisis in the country worsens.
More than 500 tonnes of medicine and other supplies that was due to be delivered this week remain at the WHO’s logistics centre in Dubai International Humanitarian City.
“WHO now only has enough supplies in-country to last for one week. Yesterday, 70 per cent of these supplies were released to health facilities,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, the WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Kabul airport remains closed to commercial flights and, based on operational and security constraints, countries sending in empty planes to pick up evacuees do not feel they are able to help."
The Taliban seized power in the country this month as US forces continued to withdraw before an August 31 deadline.
The takeover by the militant group has resulted in a frantic operation to fly foreign citizens and allies out of Kabul. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fear the return of the Taliban are also trying to flee.
“Even before these latest events, Afghanistan was the world’s third-largest humanitarian operation due to war, displacement, drought, hunger and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic,” Dr Al Mandhari said.
“Over 18 million people, more than half the population, already need humanitarian assistance to survive. And these needs are increasing daily.”
Most of the country's 2,200 health centres continue to function and are accessible, the WHO said.
Six medical teams were sent to Kabul to provide health services to more than 100,000 displaced people and 14 teams were sent to the east of the country.
But there is an urgent need for mosquito nets and hygiene kits for newly displaced people, as well as supplements to tackle rising malnutrition among children, said Dr Luo Dapeng, the WHO representative in Afghanistan.
Reproductive care, child health services and trauma care are also needed, he said.
“Covid-19 and other routine immunisation, including polio vaccination, must continue without interruption to control infectious diseases and prevent secondary health emergencies,” he added.
WHO officials are concerned the healthcare crisis could lead to a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases.
Afghanistan has reported more than 152,000 cases and more than 7,000 deaths as of Monday.
But the deteriorating security situation meant testing rates declined by 77 per cent in both public and private labs last week compared with the week before.
Only 5 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and the Alpha and Delta variants have been detected in the country.
“We were giving several thousands of Covid vaccines per day. That’s fallen off to just a few hundred per day,” said Dr Richard Brennan, regional emergency director for the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Office.
Polio vaccination is also crucial in Afghanistan, which is one of only two countries still fighting to eradicate wild polio cases. The other country is Pakistan.
Dr Brennan said the WHO would continue to tackle the virus in Afghanistan.
There had been some “encouraging signs” of support through communications with the Taliban authorities, including the newly appointed health commissioner in Kabul, he said.
“The Taliban authorities have made it clear that they want the UN to stay, that they want the continuity of health services, and they’ve encouraged health workers to remain at their posts,” he said.
To tackle the shortage of medical supplies, the WHO teamed up with the UN children's fund to call on the international community to establish a reliable humanitarian air bridge.
The WHO is in talks with the “governments of three or four countries” to solve the logistical challenges and deliver the 500 tonnes of supplies in Dubai, Dr Brennan said.
Dr Rana Hajjeh, director of programme management at the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Office, estimated the Afghan health sector required about $50 million in funding over the next three months to provide medicine and additional supplies.
“It’s a matter of survival. It’s not a matter of choice,” she said.
The WHO said it was committed to sustaining the hard-won healthcare gains in the country.
The number of women in Afghanistan who die during childbirth has been reduced by 60 per cent compared with 20 years ago, when the Taliban previously ruled the country.
Child mortality has dropped by more than 50 per cent in that time, Dr Al Mandhari said.
“It is more important than ever to keep building on these gains, so that every man, woman and child in Afghanistan has a chance to live a life filled with dignity, good health and hope,” he said.