1 October 2001


Seeks $4.5 Million to Counter Health Risks Confronting Refugees

NEW YORK, 28 September (UNFPA) -- Responding to the grave health emergency now facing Afghan women, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is mounting its largest-ever humanitarian operation. The Fund is asking international donors for $4.5 million to support the effort.

Thousands of pregnant women are among the Afghan civilians who have fled their homes in recent days and are massed along the country’s borders. The lack of shelter, food and medical care, and the unsanitary conditions pose a serious risk to these women and their infant children. Even before the current crisis, poor health conditions and malnutrition made pregnancy and childbirth exceptionally dangerous for Afghan women.

To provide displaced Afghan women with lifesaving reproductive health care services, the UNFPA is preparing to pre-position emergency relief supplies in the countries bordering Afghanistan. These are intended both for the large anticipated influx of refugees —- into Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -— and for distribution inside Afghanistan, if possible.

"Without swift action on the part of donors and relief agencies, a terribly high number of Afghan women and girls are likely to die from easily treatable pregnancy complications", says the UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid. " The UNFPA’s highest priority is to ensure that women have access to a safe delivery environment and are protected against sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy and violence. It will be a daunting task in the current environment."

Fearing possible military action inside Afghanistan, civilians have fled their homes by the tens of thousands. International staff of United Nations agencies and non-governmental relief organizations have been withdrawn from the country and borders are closed. Relief operations, which had been providing food, shelter and other assistance to more than 5 million people, have all but stopped. The United Nations estimates that when winter sets in, up to 7.5 million Afghans could require outside aid to survive.

In response, United Nations relief agencies yesterday appealed to donors to provide $584 million for humanitarian assistance, both within Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries. The inter-agency plan calls for the UNFPA to provide an integrated package of reproductive health services, including essential obstetric care, basic equipment and supplies, training and operational support.

Initial support would include clean delivery supplies; sanitary napkins and clean undergarments to protect essential hygiene; support for border area hospitals receiving referrals with pregnancy and childbirth complications; and counselling for victims of trauma. Longer-term assistance after the emergency phase will include training for local health-care providers and basic health education for women and young people.

With support from donor governments, including the United Kingdom and Italy, the UNFPA has worked for several years inside Afghanistan, and with Afghan refugee women in Pakistan and Iran. The Fund’s efforts seek to reduce maternal and infant mortality by strengthening basic essential obstetric care, and include provision of training and educational materials for midwives.

The UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, the Fund has provided more than $5 billion to developing countries to meet reproductive health needs and support sustainable development efforts.

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