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Afghanistan battles spread of infectious diseases exacerbated by climate change

Afghanistan battles spread of infectious diseases exacerbated by climate change
16 Apr 2024 00:06

ISIDORA CIRIC (ABU DHABI)

As it grapples with extreme weather conditions, Afghanistan has been witnessing a concerning uptick in infectious diseases, recording more than 16,000 suspected measles cases, over half a million cases of acute respiratory infection, and over 25,000 cases of acute watery diarrhoea since the start of 2024, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported on Monday.

The WHO report revealed a rising trend in measles since the end of November, which has continued into 2024. Despite many prevention efforts, “the number of suspected measles cases has not decreased to the endemic levels observed in 2019-2020”, surpassing the trend observed throughout 2023, according to the UN health organisation.

Measles, a highly contagious airborne disease that can lead to severe complications and death, most commonly affects young children. Among the 16,105 measles cases recorded since the beginning of 2024, 80.5% were among children under five, 45.1% of which were females.

Between April 1 and 7, the WHO recorded 1,535 suspected measles cases and 12 deaths — all of which were among children under five years old, showing a 7% and 33.3% increase compared to the week prior, respectively.

Following the concerning trend observed in measles infections, the number of acute respiratory disease cases in 2024 was also higher than the average recorded between 2020 and 2022, with 529,811 cases and 1,220 deaths since the start of the year.

Across 34 provinces, 335,069 children under the age of five were infected (63.2% of total cases), while 1,076 of them (88.2%) lost their lives to the disease.

Acute watery diarrhoea is also rampant, impacting 26,597 individuals and killing 13 across 253 districts since the onset of the year. Children under the age of five remain the most affected age group, with 14,533 cases of infection (54.6%). Moreover, between April 1 and 7, the WHO observed an 11.3% increase in the number of acute watery diarrhoea cases compared to the week before.

Climate change has played a major role in the spread of infections in Afghanistan, as extreme weather conditions, including severe droughts followed by sudden and intense flash floods and storms, have created a challenging cycle of disaster and disease, OCHA reported last year.

Between October 2023 and January 2024, the country received only 45% to 60% of the average precipitation compared to previous years, according to the data by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net). 

Prolonged dry seasons significantly exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases as they can lead to scarcity of clean water, compelling communities to rely on potentially contaminated sources, which often causes the spread of waterborne diseases such as acute watery diarrhoea, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Additionally, dry conditions can affect crop yields, leading to malnutrition, which weakens immune systems and heightens susceptibility to infections like measles and respiratory illnesses.

Following the drought, the abrupt onset of floods and storms observed recently in Afghanistan displaced hundreds, pushing them into temporary shelters or camps with cramped living conditions that are ideal for the transmission of diseases like measles, which spread rapidly in crowded spaces.

Furthermore, flooding increases the presence of water and moisture in environments, which, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, creates favourable conditions for the proliferation of pathogens, including those that cause respiratory infections. 

The combination of these unfavourable conditions has forced Afghanistan into a deadlock where natural disasters fuel each other, leading to a public healthcare emergency, the full extent of which is yet to be observed, according to reports.

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