Patients unable to access hospitals as fighting intensifies in southern Afghanistan

Boost hospital is run by Doctors Without Borders in partnership with the Ministry of Public Health. It is one of the biggest the organization runs worldwide: 300 beds, 700 national staff, 25 international staff. (Credit: Kadir Van Lohuizen/Noor)

Fighting between the Afghan forces and the Taliban has intensified in the city of Lashkar Gah in the Helmand Province in the last few weeks. With no end to the fighting, patients are unable to access the city’s main hospital as roads remain blocked.

Lashkar Gah has been a battleground between the Afghan forces and the Taliban for more than 10 years. Fighting has intensified as part of recent Taliban gains in areas surrounding the city, closing supply routes and bringing fighting to the doorsteps of the city’s hospital.

Patients are unable to access health services and wards remain empty. Boost hospital, a 300-bed medical facility that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs alongside the Ministry of Health, is worryingly quiet despite increased humanitarian need.

“The intensification and proximity of fighting is clearly limiting access to the hospital,” said Gulheim Molinie, Doctors Without Borders’ country representative in Afghanistan, in a statement. “In the immediate aftermath of fighting one in four patients are currently unable to reach our emergency room.”

Road blocks and checkpoints are delaying and preventing patients from reaching Boost hospital. Last week, Erland Gronningen, a Doctors Without Border medic working at the hospital, told the Los Angeles Times that a 15-year-old girl with meningitis from the Nawa district, next to Lashkar Gah city, reached Boost hospital a week after she started showing symptoms.

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When she finally reached the hospital with her parents, she slipped into a coma and died within 24 hours of receiving treatment.

“When patients like her present late, it reduces our chances of making them better,” Gronningen said. “It is a sad situation.”

There are usually more children in the pediatric ward. Doctors wait for children to treat, but many of them are delayed, and some never reach the hospital.

In August the hospital has only seen an average of 25 patients a day, a number that Doctors Without Borders said is well below the usual number of patients for this time of year. The majority of these patients are children under five.

“When we see empty beds, it’s always worrying, especially in the pediatric wards,” Gronningen said.

Pediatric hospital wards remain empty at Boost Hospital (Credit: Kate Stegeman/MSF)

Pediatric hospital wards remain empty at Boost Hospital (Credit: Kate Stegeman/MSF)

Many of these are children that are severely malnourished. The World Food Program (WFP) said that around a third of Afghans don’t have enough food. Half of all children are chronically malnourished and face difficulties accessing hospitals if their conditions worsen.

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“Delays in treating malnutrition can stunt early childhood development and prove fatal. It is a main cause of child mortality in Helmand,” Molinie said in a statement.

The main road from Kandahar to Lashkhar Gah has been blocked since the beginning of the Taliban’s offensive, which has made delivering supplies into the city difficult.

Nicholas Helton, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ suboffice in the south of Afghanistan, told Humanosphere that supplies have been getting into the city by air drops. “Humanitarian organizations have maintained a presence in Lashka Gah since the beginning of this offensive and access to Lashkar Gah has been consistent by air.”

Helton also maintained that while supplies have been limited by the fighting, supplies of staple foods are still available in the local market.

Despite this, many are still going hungry or have issues reaching hospitals. With many fleeing surrounding towns and villages to come to Lashkar Gah, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid will only increase.

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com