Sunday, August 31, 2014

Afghan medical college struggles to rise from the ashes

KABUL (Reuters) – The gutted, hollow shell of the Ali Abad training hospital in Kabul is a symbol of the state of Afghanistan’s medical system, battered by decades of war.

Ali Abad, Afghanistan’s oldest hospital, was reduced to rubble when civil war tore Kabul apart in the 1990s.

Though classes stayed open, many doctors who taught at the teaching hospital fled, medical equipment and drugs were scarce and female students were forced to stay at home due to Taliban restrictions against women.

“We lost many senior professors and qualified teachers, they emigrated to other countries, like the United States and they are not coming back,” said Professor Obaidullah, chancellor of the Kabul Medical University. “It’s a disaster for us.”

Reconstruction of the teaching hospital, built 70 years ago, began in 2005 and a motley collection of squat buildings now stand in place of the rubble.

“Ali Abad was completely destroyed. We built two buildings recently but they are empty, we don’t have the equipment for the new Ali Abad hospital,” said Obaidullah.

He hopes to open a 600 bed facility in the new hospital within the next five months but there is still a shortfall of $1.5 million to pay for equipment. The medical school also badly needs doctors to teach.

“We need specialists in oncology, modern anesthesiology, biochemistry and histopathology. We have some, but not enough. The key is to get good teachers, increase their knowledge, allow them to go overseas and learn. We accept young teachers, those who want to learn more. We welcome foreigners,” he said.

AMBITIOUS PLANS

Afghanistan’s healthcare system is widely believed to be one of the country’s success stories since reconstruction began after the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led and Afghan forces in 2001. The Islamist movement came to power in 1996 after a civil war.

While many daunting problems linger, such as not enough doctors, nurses, midwives and equipment, the provision of primary healthcare has improved in some parts of Afghanistan due to help from donor nations and NGOs.

Female patients were excluded from healthcare for many years because they were banned from consulting male doctors, but they are now getting improved access to treatment.

Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world, although the government has ambitious plans to cut the rate to 400 from 1,600 for every 100,000 live births by 2020. It also plans to train more female doctors and nurses.

Even today, Afghanistan is suffering the after-effects of Taliban rule as it does not have enough women doctors, nurses and midwives for its female population.

“Female students have come back … Now they make up 40 percent of our 2,100 students,” Obaidullah said. “During the Taliban era, there were zero girls.”

Apart from Ali Abad, Kabul Medical University has three other teaching hospitals, among them the French Medical Institute for Children, considered one of the country’s better equipped hospitals.

Unlike many doctors, Obaidullah and a handful of colleagues never left Afghanistan, not even during its most difficult times, such as during the 1992 to 1996 civil war.

“One day in 1994, I had just finished a surgery and was going home. That day a lot of rockets fell on Kabul city. I didn’t have a car and I ran 10 kilometers all the way home,” said A H Shafaq, an ear, nose and throat specialist who teaches at the university.

“That day, it was as if the rockets were chasing me, they were falling around me,” he said.

The university rebuilt almost its entire grounds over the past three years. But it left standing an external wall covered with the scars of rocket fire and bullets.

“These are all the memories of war,” said Shafaq, pointing to the wall.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)