Pneumonia cases spike in Afghanistan as families struggle to keep warm in second winter under Taliban

Afghanistan is witnessing a steep rise in pneumonia cases, with the disease spreading rapidly in children under five as the country weathers a second winter under Taliban rule.

Data shared exclusively with The Independent by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) showed pneumonia cases in the country surged by 35 per cent in 2022, compared to the caseload just two years ago.

While a total 157,732 cases were reported in 2021 in the 33 hospitals supported by the ICRC in Afghanistan, the number increased to 213,049 last year.

Cases in children under five almost doubled from 87,895 in 2021 to 135,056 last year, it said. The increase for all ages five and over was nearly 16 per cent.

Winter has also contributed to increased incidence and severity of respiratory infections, said the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The global health agency said it also observed a significant surge in cases of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, caused by the highly contagious Bordetella pertussis bacterium, and measles.

According to the WHO, a total 64 suspected pertussis cases were reported in November last year while at least 2,396 newly suspected measles cases, including seven associated deaths, were reported in the same time – a jump of 15.3 per cent from a month earlier.

The majority of the cases were reported in children under five years of age, as per the WHO.

Raising concerns about the challenges faced by patients in the country, ICRC says malnutrition is one of the reasons leading to an increase in respiratory diseases in children in Afghanistan.

”Child malnutrition cases are already 90 per cent higher this year compared to all of 2021, rising from 33,000 cases to over 63,000 so far this year,” explained ICRC’s Afghanistan-based spokesperson Lucien Christen.

“And it is widely known that malnutrition is a leading contributor to respiratory diseases,” he adds.

“Over the past few years, the country has observed a significant increase in malnutrition and this is directly related to economic turmoil in the country.

“People don’t have enough money, as a result, they don’t have enough means to buy food or clothes or wood to keep themselves warm,” he shares. “Even children are forced to work in the streets and turn into breadwinners for their families"

The humanitarian situation in the country “remains critical,” the WHO told The Independent.

“Despite the efforts of WHO, UN and other health partners, there are still more than 13 million people (about 32 per cent of Afghans) living in areas with no access to basic health services,” says Dr Luo Dapeng, the agency’s representative in Afghanistan.

“Twenty-eight out of 70 major public hospitals are currently without funding,” he said, adding that over 1,200 health facilities and more than 11,000 health workers are not covered through predictable support. “This includes 40 public hospitals used to provide Covid-19 treatment.”

The unprecedented level of malnutrition is especially worrying, Dr Dapeng said.

The WHO needs up to $350m (£290m) “to scale up the response to ongoing emergencies and emerging health needs”, including the expansion of coverage, he explained.