The number of measles cases has been extremely high in Boost hospital. From December to the end of February, on average over 150 children with measles came to the hospital each week.
Forty per cent of these children have a severe complication like pneumonia and are admitted for treatment.
In Herat, Doctors Without Border or MSF saw almost 800 measles cases in February.
At the beginning of the year, the project supported by MSF had eight isolation beds for patients with infectious diseases like tuberculosis or measles.
That ward quickly became overwhelmed with measles patients and so 12 beds were added. Rehabilitation work is ongoing to transform an existing building into a 60-bed measles unit, providing intensive care for critical patients and inpatient care for those who are recovering.
But even this will likely not be enough.
“Sixty per cent of the measles cases we see arriving at Herat Regional Hospital require hospitalisation,” says Sarah Vuylsteke, MSF Herat project coordinator. “Half of those we admit for critical care are also malnourished.”
For months, children receiving treatment in our feeding centres in Helmand and Herat have often had to share beds, as the number of patients exceeds the centres’ bed capacity.
Across both projects, from January until the end of February, there were almost 800 children admitted with severe acute malnutrition.
“Most children we see in our feeding centre and intensive care unit have had measles recently,” says Fazal Hai Ziarmal, MSF’s clinical team leader at Boost hospital.
“Measles damages children’s immune systems and makes it harder for them to fight complications such as pneumonia.”
“If a child is malnourished, as many in Afghanistan are at the moment, their immune system is already very weak and that can lead to a more severe and prolonged measles infection,” continues Ziarmal.
“This then damages their immune system even further and makes children very vulnerable.
A lot of malnourished children die from post measles complications.”
Measles is preventable through vaccination, but coverage in Afghanistan is low and this is one explanation for the rapid rise in cases.
In addition, sometimes several families live under one roof, creating perfect conditions for the rapid spread of the disease. Some children recover from measles by themselves, whilst others need simple medication for their complications.
But even this can be hard to find in Afghanistan as many health facilities lack sufficient medicines and supplies. This means many parents have to buy the medication from local pharmacies.
It is worth mentioning that in Kunduz, MSF financed staff and equipment for a new 35-bed measles ward at Kunduz Regional Hospital.
The ward opened on 27 February and, by the next morning, it already had more patients than beds.