In a land foremost known for harboring Taliban terrorists and suffering under almost continuous conflict since 1979, not many people know that Afghanistan has the second-worst infant mortality rate in the world.
"When World Vision asked me to go to Afghanistan, it was like God saying, 'Go to Nineveh,'” said Tim Pylate, a World Vision staff who recently completed his assignment in Afghanistan.
Stories of women cutting the umbilical cord with a dirty knife and babies dying due to diarrhea and dehydration are common.
Christian groups, some which have been in the country for decades, are helping to combat this avoidable problem by training local midwives and providing healthcare services to Afghan women. The international Christian humanitarian organizations World Vision and Interserve are among the groups working to overcome Afghanistan’s biggest killer. CURE International, a Christian ministry offering physical and spiritual healing to disabled children in the developing world, is also working to overcome Afghanistan’s high infant mortality rate through its CURE Hospital.
According to a UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) 2006 statistic, Afghanistan has 165 deaths for every 1,000 live birth. In other words, one in six babies dies before their first birthday. Moreover, six out of every 100 mothers die during childbirth. Afghanistan also has one of the world’s highest child mortality rates – one in four Afghan children die before they reach five years old.
WV is providing a program at the Institute of Health Sciences in Herat in western Afghanistan to help combat the high death rates from the birth process.
The two-year program allows young women from outside the cities to train as midwives to return and help their towns and villages. The students vary in age and background from single women in their early 20’s to older women who may be widowed.
Midwives are especially needed in Afghanistan because cultural constraints mean that rarely are male doctors allowed to assist women giving birth and there are few midwives, especially in rural areas.
Students were educated on basic hygiene, how to provide education to expectant mothers, on complex interventions for the mother during child birth, and how to feed and care for premature infants. Midwives are not trained in surgery of any kind.
“This training program provides rural clinics with professional midwives to help reduce the high mortality rate of mothers and infants,” said Rachel Wolff, communications manger for World Vision, last week.
“World Vision is privileged to serve alongside the families in Afghanistan as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.”
The program, which began in 2004, has graduated 142 trained midwives as of December 2006 out of the total goal of 300. Currently, 60 students are in the training program.
World Vision’s current partners in the midwives training program include USAID, JHPIGO (an international health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University), and the Institute of Health Sciences at Herat Regional Hospital in Herat, Afghanistan.
Interserve, a mission network of professional Christians and global churches, has served in Afghanistan since the 1960’s, working with the locals mostly through healthcare needs.
In an interview last month, the Rev. Douglas Van Bronkhorst, executive director of Interserve USA, informed that the Christian community in Afghanistan is virtually non-existent with at most a few hundred Afghan Christians in the country.
“The number of native Christians is an indication of how hard it is,” he noted. “But also you have to understand that it has been made more difficult by the constant conflict that has been going on there going back centuries.”
Van Bronkhorst acknowledged that Afghanistan is difficult, but said “it is not hopeless on any level.”
“If it can be relatively peaceful then it can make real progress as a country; it has got very industrious and intelligent people. I think the gospel does well when there are opportunities to share with people so I am hopeful even though I understand the challenges.”