April 22, 2024

Three-month-old Tayabullah is quiet and motionless. His mother Nigar moves the oxygen pipe away from his nose and puts a finger below his nostrils to check if she can feel him breathing.

She begins to cry as she realises her son is fading.

At this hospital in Afghanistan, there is not a single working ventilator.

Mothers hold oxygen tubes near their babies’ noses because masks designed to fit their small faces are not available, and the women are trying to fill in for what trained staff or medical equipment should do.

Every day, 167 children die in Afghanistan from preventable diseases, according to the UN children’s fund Unicef – illnesses that could and should be cured with the right medication.

It is a staggering number. But it’s an estimate.

And when you step inside the paediatric ward of the main hospital in the western province of Ghor, you will be left wondering if that estimate is too low.

Multiple rooms are full of sick children, at least two in each bed, their little bodies ravaged by pneumonia. Just two nurses look after 60 children.

In one room, we saw at least two dozen babies who appeared to be in a serious condition. The children should have been continuously monitored in critical care – impossible at this hospital.

Yet, for the million people who live in Ghor, this basic facility is still the best equipped public hospital they can access.

A ward at the hospital in Ghor, where mothers sit with their ill children
Image caption,

Mothers are left distraught at this Afghanistan hospital where children die of preventable or curable diseases

Public healthcare in Afghanistan has never been adequate, and foreign money which almost entirely funded it was frozen in August 2021 when the Taliban seized power. Over the past 20 months, we have visited hospitals and clinics across this country, and witnessed them collapsing.

Now the Taliban’s recent ban on women working for NGOs means it’s becoming harder for humanitarian agencies to operate, putting even more children and babies at risk.

  1. Nurse Edima Sultani, who works on the paediatric ward of a hospital in Afghanistan's Ghor province
I’m also a mother, and when I saw the baby die, I felt like I’ve lost my own child
Nurse Edima Sultani
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Already defeated by a lack of resources, medics at the Ghor hospital used whatever little they had to try to revive Tayabullah.

Dr Ahmad Samadi was called in to check his condition, fatigue and stress visible on his face. He put a stethoscope to Tayabullah’s chest – there was a faint heartbeat.

Nurse Edima Sultani rushed in with an oxygen pump. She put it over Tayabullah’s mouth, blowing air into it. Then Dr Samadi used his thumbs to perform compressions on the boy’s tiny chest.

Watching on looking stricken was Tayabullah’s grandfather Ghawsaddin. He told us his grandson was suffering from pneumonia and malnutrition.

“It took eight hours on rubble roads to bring him here from our district Charsadda,” Ghawsaddin said. The family, who can only afford to eat dry bread for meals, scraped together money to pay for the ride.

For half an hour, the efforts to revive his grandson continued. Nurse Sultani then turned towards Nigar and told her Tayabullah had died.

The sudden silence which had enveloped the room was broken by Nigar’s sobs. Her baby boy was wrapped in a blanket and handed over to Ghawsaddin. The family carried him home.

Tayabullah should be alive – every disease he had was curable.

“I’m also a mother and when I saw the baby die, I felt like I’ve lost my own child. When I saw his mother weeping, it broke my heart. It hurt my conscience,” said Nurse Sultani, who frequently does 24-hour shifts.

“We don’t have equipment and there is a lack of trained staff, especially female staff. When we are looking after so many in serious conditions, which child should we check on first? There’s nothing we can do but watch babies die.”

A child in the Ghol hospital with an unsecured oxygen tube lying on its chest
Image caption,

There are no oxygen masks in the hospital small enough to fit a baby’s face

Minutes later, in the room next door, we saw another child in severe distress, with an oxygen mask on her face, struggling to breathe.

Two-year-old Gulbadan was born with a heart defect, a condition called patent ductus arteriosus. It was diagnosed six months ago at this hospital.

Doctors have told us the condition is not uncommon or hard to treat. But Ghor’s main hospital is not equipped to perform routine surgery that could fix it. It also doesn’t have the medicines she needs.

Gulbadan’s grandmother Afwa Gul held down her small arms, to try to prevent the little girl from pulling down her mask.

“We borrowed money to take her to Kabul, but we couldn’t afford surgery, so we had to bring her back,” she said. They approached an NGO to get financial help. Their details were registered but there’s been no response since then.

Gulbadan’s father Nawroze stroked her forehead, trying to soothe his daughter who winced with every breath she took. Stress etched on his face, he pursed his lips and let out a sigh of resignation. He told us Gulbadan had recently begun to talk, forming her first words, calling out to him and other members of their family.

 

 

 

 

Credit: By Yogita Limaye
Afghanistan correspondent

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