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World Headlines

In Afghanistan, a food crisis is worsening

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's go now to Afghanistan and the growing number of children there who do not have enough to eat. Filipe Ribeiro runs the Afghanistan office of Doctors Without Borders. He says he's seeing more and more kids come to their hospitals severely malnourished. Sometimes there aren't enough beds.

FILIPE RIBEIRO: Time to time, we have no other option than to put two babies in one bed because a lot of patients are coming to us. We cannot extend the hospital much more. And the other hospitals are not able to cope neither with the current situation.

KELLY: We've been checking in with Ribeiro since before the country fell to the Taliban. Six months ago, he told me stray bullets were flying through a hospital compound in Lashkar Gah. That's in southern Afghanistan. Staff there were treating wounds from shrapnel and bullets and burns. In the months since, Ribeiro has described a much calmer scene - lots of babies being born at that hospital in Lashkar Gah. And when we reached him today in Kabul, at times, he sounded optimistic.

RIBEIRO: We still have a lot of babies coming in. Deliveries are still very high in the hospital, in the maternity, with more than 60 per day in this specific hospital, which is quite good.

KELLY: But amidst those bright spots, he described a quieter crisis now playing out.

RIBEIRO: We are getting a lot of patients coming to the hospital - mainly kids, but not only. In-patient facility for malnutrition is crowded. We are at the very end of the chain. We are getting the patients when there is no other option than to be hospitalized for malnutrition. But also, before reaching such a severe malnutrition, we do have all of the disease that are associated with food insecurity and the lack of food.

KELLY: Yeah. I interviewed David Beasley, who runs the World Food Program, last month. He had just returned from Afghanistan. He was describing a vicious cycle of children so malnourished that they are hospitalized, where they get care, where they get some food, but then as soon as they get a little bit better, they go back home and there's no food. Does that square with what you and your staff are seeing?

RIBEIRO: Yep. That's one of the very frustrating aspects of the crisis nowadays is, right, actually, we do receive patients that are severely malnourished. We do our best to put them back on track, if I can say so. They get out of the hospital cured. They go back home. There is still the problem of accessibility, to access to food. And a couple of weeks later, they fell again into malnutrition. We are talking here about food insecurity. Basically, people not having enough access to food. We are not yet at the medical stage of it, although there is severe stage of it. But it might happen, actually.

KELLY: Yeah. I guess I'm trying to square what you're telling me with what I've heard from guests and other recent interviews. David Beasley, for example, described the situation in Afghanistan as hell on Earth.

RIBEIRO: Close to, not yet. I mean, if you look from an individual perspective, all of these people that are begging in the streets, that have no food, of course, it's hell on earth for them. Overall, the situation is bad and getting worse day after day, but we are not yet - I don't want to look cynical saying so - but we are not yet as a kind of climax of a crisis. We might get to it, but we are not yet there. And I hope we will not get there.

KELLY: Yeah. You're in Kabul. Just give us a little bit of a sense of what life there looks like, feels like right now. I know when I spoke to you before, you said the streets were quiet and calm. This was this past fall. But you said that's partly because a lot of people don't have work anymore. They've lost their jobs, so they have nowhere to go.

RIBEIRO: More or less the same. The atmosphere is quite bizarre, I have to say, you know. No one really knows where the country is going. No one knows what the future will look like. I mean, just to give you a little bit of an idea of what the current situation is, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. The cash situation didn't improve at all. The banks are barely functional. Afghans who have savings can not have access to their savings. And all of that, of course, increases poverty. And there is a kind of wait-and-see situation that is quite bizarre. The streets are, I mean, the town - there is life in town, but not to the extent it used to be for sure. With no perspective, no one really knows what will be next.

KELLY: Filipe Ribeiro. He is head of the Afghanistan office of Doctors Without Borders, speaking to us from Kabul. Good to speak with you.

RIBEIRO: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.