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Health Supplies Land in Afghanistan, But Still Not Enough As Need Grows


Afghanistan's health care system will run out of basic supplies like gloves and medicine within days according to the World Health Organization. This week, a plane full of those supplies arrived in the country that is now under full Taliban control. Aid groups face big challenges distributing that help to people in need. Rick Brennan is the WHO's regional emergency director of the office for the Eastern Mediterranean, and he joins us from Cairo.


RICK BRENNAN: Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You've said that the need in Afghanistan is enormous and growing. Is the shipment that arrived this week enough to make a dent in the problem?

BRENNAN: It'll make a very small dent, but it's enough to supply 40 hospitals with urgently need (ph) trauma kits and essential supplies. The good news is we've got two other larger shipments coming in probably Friday and Monday.

SHAPIRO: The Kabul airport is not operational right now, so how are these supplies actually getting into the country?

BRENNAN: Well, for the first shipment, we were able to work with the Pakistan government, the Pakistan International Airway (ph). And we flew into the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country. It's more secure up there. And we were able to do the distributions directly from the airport to the health facilities across a number of provinces.

SHAPIRO: You said you've been coordinating with the Pakistani government. Are you also talking with the Taliban? How does that conversation go?

BRENNAN: Not so much on the shipments, but we have started the discussions with the Taliban authorities on the delivery of health services. And we made clear about WHO's commitment to continue support for the health system, promoting the respect and rights of female health workers, COVID control and some other priorities.

SHAPIRO: What are the most urgent needs right now? What do health facilities need most?

BRENNAN: We have heard that some of the organizations that are supporting up to 2,200 health facilities across the country will cease their support as of September the 5. So this will be a precipitous closure of over 2,000 health facilities, clinics and hospitals.

SHAPIRO: And why is that?

BRENNAN: Because the major international donors have had to pause their funding because they're no longer able to channel their funding through the government. So this is - in my experience and almost 30 years of humanitarian and global health work, this is unprecedented. So it just adds to the complexity of all the issues we're facing in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: When you have limited space on a plane that is delivering supplies to a country where the needs are as great as Afghanistan, what do you prioritize?

BRENNAN: Well, right now we've prioritized trauma kits and what we call emergency health kits. And these emergency health kits have the essential medicines and supplies for clinics and hospitals. In the next shipment, we'll be bringing in supplies for the management of malnutrition. And thereafter, we'll be bringing in some COVID testing kits and other essential medicines.

SHAPIRO: Are there also staffing concerns? I mean, can women in these hospitals continue working, for example?

BRENNAN: What we have seen is that in the health facilities that have been functioning, there's been a decline in the attendance of female health workers and, associated with that, an - also a decline in the number of women and children presenting. And that's because they'll generally only go to a facility where they can get treated by a female health worker. So this is going to be one of the other issues that faces the health system in Afghanistan, is the enormous brain drain.

SHAPIRO: There are obviously so many compound crises upon crises. What worries you most right now?

BRENNAN: In Afghanistan specifically, is this imminent closure of the 2,200 health facilities. We're working with the donors who for, you know, regulatory reasons, cannot channel money through the government at this stage to find other options for channeling the money so we can get those health facilities up and running again.

SHAPIRO: That's Rick Brennan, World Health Organization's regional emergency director of the Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.

Thank you very much.

BRENNAN: Thank you. Thanks for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.