Babies lie side by side in warming beds or sprawled on blankets atop crude wooden tables.
Children with wounds and broken bones are carried in by their parents to wait on stiff plastic chairs. Outside, coughing youngsters squat on the pavement with their anxious families, waiting for care. And everywhere, parents clutch plastic bags containing bring-your-own medicines and supplies. For though they are all awaiting treatment at Afghanistan’s only specialist pediatric hospital, the hospital cannot even afford bandages for its patients. The Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in central Kabul has to run on an operating budget of less than $1,200 a month, said Dr. Noorulhaq Yousufzai, the hospital director. The few supplies that he can buy have to be hoarded for emergencies, and he has to count on parents to buy what’s needed to care for their children. “In some cases, there is shortage of the surgical materials, and sometimes we don’t have antiseptic to use,” Yousufzai said. The United Nations says that more than $15 billion in aid has been sent to Afghanistan since the U.S.-led coalition overthrew the Taliban in late 2001. But still, the hospital cannot afford to help the hundreds of children who stream in every day, desperate for care and cures. The government does pay for salaries and sometimes for fuel, but there is often a shortage of even basic supplies like syringes. Doctors say they have to double up premature babies in incubators. And some of those incubators are compromised. On a recent day, a plastic surgical mask taped onto one machine was the only shield from infection. Watch scenes from inside the hospital »
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The parents waiting anxiously beside their sick children seem resigned to the situation in the hospital. One mother, who declined to give her name, said she spent the family’s entire weekly income of $8 on an injection that did not help her baby. “This is something that the hospital should be giving us, because we can’t afford it,” she said. The U.S. Agency for International Development says infant mortality has dropped by 22 percent since the overthrow of the Taliban but acknowledges that the health status for Afghans is among the worst in the world. One in every five Afghan children will die before their 5th birthday, often of a preventable disease, according to the Save the Children aid agency. The toll on the children and parents is clear to any visitor, and the strain hits the hospital staff, too.
“When you see a patient is very, very, sick and you cannot help, and they have to provide something for their children and they are not able to provide, it’s also a stress for us,” Yousufzai said. At the end of 2001, there were hopes that the hospital would be upgraded, but it is still waiting. It needs some acute care of its own, or it will continue to struggle to help the children who arrive at its door pleading for care.