Afghans face impossible choices in their struggle for medical care

04 Mar 2020

Despite decades of international aid and investment, Afghans still struggle to access basic and emergency medical care due to insecurity, distance, cost and the fact that many health facilities lack the staff and equipment they need. We’ve released a report today, Reality Check: Afghanistan’s neglected healthcare crisis, outlining the issues we see in greater detail.


A child living in an informal settlement for displaced people on the outskirts of Herat city, Afghanistan gets a check-up from a doctor at MSF’s Kahdestan clinic. The health team at the clinic offers medical consultations, as well as screening and treatment for malnutrition, and childhood vaccination. © Noor Ahmad Saleem / MSF


In-depth interviews with patients, their caretakers and our staff in Herat and Helmand provinces in Afghanistan reveal that many Afghans face significant barriers getting medical care – a situation that has seen no improvement since 2014. Insecurity and widespread poverty continue to put healthcare out of reach for many people, and ensuring access to free, high quality healthcare is essential.


Travelling through conflict zones

The effects of active fighting and indiscriminate violence permeate every aspect of daily life, and this includes seeking medical care. Many of our patients in Boost hospital in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, have to weigh up various factors before embarking on a journey to or from the hospital, including whether the roads have been mined, whether there are checkpoints along the way and whether it is safe to travel in the dark or when fighting is ongoing.

“We are scared to leave at night, so we always have to wait until daytime to go to the hospital. With everyone in our family, when they are sick, we wait, even if the person is dying.”

A patient’s caretaker in the maternity ward of Boost hospital

The medical staff working in health facilities managed and supported by MSF regularly see the impact these delays have on patients’ health – delays that can mean the difference between life and death. During the first six months of 2019, 44 per cent of the children who died within 24 hours of arriving at the paediatric intensive care unit in Boost hospital came too late and at a very advanced stage of illness.


The cost to reach medical care

Poverty also has a significant impact on people’s access to medical care. Up to 89 per cent of patients and caretakers surveyed in Herat Regional Hospital said that they had postponed seeking medical care due to financial pressures. One parent explained that they had waited eight days to bring their malnourished baby for treatment while they scraped together the money to hire a car, eventually borrowing the funds from friends and relatives. Another simply said: “We cannot buy food for tonight. How can we pay for medicines and doctors?”


Abdul Jalil brings his son Ramin to MSF’s Kahdestan clinic after going to a public hospital, where he could not afford to buy the drugs prescribed. © Adhmadullah Safi / MSF

“Our patients tell us of long, dangerous journeys to bring malnourished babies, pregnant relatives, or injured loved-ones to hospital. They describe clinics with insufficient drugs or qualified staff, and they have to contend with mounting debt to pay for treatment."

Julien Raickman
MSF’s Country Representative in Afghanistan