- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

When Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson toured an Afghanistan women’s hospital in October, he was struck by the severe poverty of the facility and its connection to the nation’s high maternal and infant mortality rates.Mr. Thompson pledged to Afghan leaders that the United States would help it rebuild its public health infrastructure. On Monday, Mr. Thompson returned to Kabul to check up on the $2 million remodeling effort at the Rabia Balkhi Women’s Hospital, which last year delivered some 13,000 babies. In October, “there was no running water to wash up before operating,” the secretary told reporters yesterday at HHS offices. Now there’s water, equipment, supplies and even a daycare center on the second floor, he said.Even more important, four doctors from America, including two ex-patriate Afghans, are providing critically needed medical training to nearly 100 Afghan medical personnel.Afghan custom doesn’t allow male doctors to care for pregnant and laboring women and under the Taliban regime few women were allowed to be educated, Mr. Thompson said. This lack of skilled doctors for women contributed to Afghan’s high 16 percent of mothers dying in childbirth and 25 percent of children dying before age 5.Training will make all the difference, he said, adding that while the Afghan people “really want to make it on their own,” right now “they need everything and anything.” Funding for the first stage of the Rabia Balkhi remodeling included $500,000 from the Department of Defense, $1 million from HHS and about $500,000 from private sources, said Mr. Thompson.The Bush administration has asked for $5 million more in its 2004 budget — $3 million to finish work on the hospital, including making it a national teaching facility, and $2 million to equip and staff satellite clinics in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.Efforts are also under way to bypass language barriers with interactive health books in which text appears in Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s major languages. Afghan officials, including acting Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and Minister of Health Suhaila Seddiqi were “fascinated” by this and other technology introduced by U.S. officials, Mr. Thompson said yesterday.

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