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Hope and Heroes in Afghanistan

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Doctors and nurses rushed to a bed in Khulm District Hospital as little Ahmadullah fought for his life. Only four days old and ill with neo-natal sepsis, a potentially fatal blood infection - it was going to be touch and go whether he lived.

The head doctor immediately referred him to a bigger hospital 60km away in Mazar-i-Sharif, and the nurses placed an oxygen mask over his tiny face to help with his struggling breathing. His mum held onto the bars at the end of the bed, wiping tears away.

Like many other newborn babies in Afghanistan, Ahmadullah had been infected from a dirty scalpel cutting his umbilical cord. Thankfully his parents were able to get him to the District Hospital in time, where he was expertly cared for and given a chance of survival.

This life-saving scene is part of a quiet revolution that is changing Afghanistan for the better. Not very long ago one in five children died here from preventable illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhoea and one in 11 mums died from causes relating to pregnancy or child birth.

Now new data by the Afghan government says deaths have been cut dramatically, to one in10 children and one in 50 mothers.

I saw first hand the reason why progress has been made. The heroes are frontline health workers - doctors, nurses and midwives. On my five-day visit to Afghanistan I saw again and again the difference they were making, literally transforming the communities they served.

In Balkh province, in the north of Afghanistan, I visited a village with two amazing women who had been trained by Save the Children: chief community health worker, Nafasgul, and volunteer health worker, Sediqua.

Sediqua showed me her map of the village. Every house was marked and she explained how she monitored every pregnant women and every malnourished child, and how she educated local families on family planning and how to prepare nutritious food.

She said only a few years ago all mothers delivered at home, very few families accepted vaccinations and sanitation was poor. Now, thanks to their efforts, the community is now fully behind the health and nutrition push. Babies are being delivered at a small local clinic by a trained midwife, and 85% of children are vaccinated.

But this progress in Afghanistan is threatened by a massive challenge that is still endangering the lives of millions of children: malnutrition. More than 30,000 children already die every year in Afghanistan because of malnutrition, and a severe drought here in the north of the country has left thousands more children dangerously hungry.

But not only is malnutrition putting these children's lives at risk now. If children become chronically malnourished before the age of two, they will suffer the effects their whole lives. Children's bodies can be starved of essential vitamins and minerals - not necessarily because they don't have enough to eat, but because they're not eating the right, nutritious food.

And this results in a condition called stunting. Children with stunted growth are weaker, shorter, are likely to have lower IQs and to drop out of school early. And if children become malnourished before the age of two, the damage can last their entire life.

Shockingly, in Afghanistan, nearly 60% of children are stunted - that's 3million across the country. Many families I met are only able to feed their children on bread and tea, because their crops have failed and the price of wheat has risen by 60% since last year.

Take Mohammed Jan, or 'Mohammed dear' - a tiny seven-month-old baby I met at another district hospital supported by Save the Children. When he arrived at the clinic he weighed a frail 4.6kg, less than some new-born babies.

His mum told me she had been forced to leave her home because of the drought, and she was unable to feed her baby son properly.

Thankfully community health workers had identified him as an urgent case, and he had been rushed to hospital. In the three days he had been there, his weight had increased significantly, and he was soon to be discharged.

Afghanistan is a desperately poor country and has huge challenges but I have come away hopeful by the resilience and fortitude of the Afghan people. And the progress they are making.

On my flight back from Mazar to Kabul I met the head of the Save the Children midwife clinic in Jowzjan - Dr Malia Enayat, who was coming to Kabul to do some training.

She is an amazing woman. In her province 10 years ago there were only four midwives for almost half a million people. At her midwife school, paid for by Save the Children, she has now trained nearly 150 young women. They each will each deliver over 500 newborns a year, saving thousands of mums and babies.

They, and the volunteer heath workers teaching mums about safe childbirth and proper nutrition, are the true heroes of Afghanistan and the reason for hope.

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