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News | May 11, 2008

Doctors plan fight against disease in Afghanistan

By Sgt. Jessica Dahlberg , American Forces Press Service

Lt. Col. Mark McGrail, a surgeon with Combined Task Force 101, gives the opening remarks at an infectious disease seminar at the Jirga Center in Bagram May 5.
Lt. Col. Mark McGrail, a surgeon with Combined Task Force 101, gives the opening remarks at an infectious disease seminar at the Jirga Center in Bagram May 5.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (May 9, 2008) — Medical leaders from Coalition forces and international medical organizations gathered at the Jirga Center on May 5, for an all-day seminar to discuss infectious diseases that plague the Afghan population.

The seminar featured presentations by experts from Afghanistan’s public health ministry and the World Health Organization.

"The purpose of this seminar is to train U.S. and coalition doctors to treat Afghans the Afghan way," said Army Lt. Col. Mendalose Harris, a public health nurse assigned to Combined Joint Task Force 101 in Afghanistan.

Dr. Ahmad Jan Naeem, director of policy and planning at the Afghan public health ministry, discussed the importance of infectious disease control. Most deaths in Afghanistan are a result of infectious diseases, he said. Dr. Sha Muhamad Rahim, a staff officer at the public health ministry, spoke of five strategies being developed to combat infectious diseases.

The ministry is going to strengthen its resources so Afghanistan is better prepared for and can respond more quickly to an epidemic, he said. The ministry wants to develop Afghanistan’s infrastructure to extend to more rural areas and to develop a risk communication plan, he added.

But public health officials face some tough challenges, Rahim acknowledged. Some areas of the country are deemed unsafe for medical personnel, and difficult terrain makes rural areas hard to access. A shortage of woman doctors on the medical staff makes it hard to treat the female population, he added.

Afghanistan’s disease early warning system now serves all provinces, collecting information about diseases and providing aid. Last year, the DEWS detected 165 outbreaks, Dr. Nanjibullah Assadi, the public health ministry’s internal coordinator for the system, told the seminar participants. Tuberculosis, malaria and leishmaniasis – the three main diseases discussed at the seminar – all can be detected by DEWS, he noted.

Afghan public health ministry officials want to reduce the global burden of tuberculosis by 2015, said Dr. Hamid Hassan Momand, national TB/HIV collaboration officer. The public health ministry considers tuberculosis a priority, he said, and the organization plans to ensure access for diagnosis and treatment for each patient while reducing deaths and the number of cases.

Dr. Najibullah Safi, chief of the public health ministry’s leishmaniasis and malaria programs, said Malaria is another high-priority infectious disease. Afghans living less than 2,000 meters below sea level and those who cultivate rice are most at risk for malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease.

Leishmaniasis cases have risen in the last 10 to 15 years because of political instability, sporadic diagnosis and treatment of cases, and the absence of vector-controlled activities, Safi said. Leishmaniasis, most often spread from one person to another by sand fleas, produces skin sores and can damage the liver and spleen if untreated.

Seminar participants said the cross feed can encourage teamwork among medical personnel, resulting in better health care for the Afghanistan population.