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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2007, page 67

Waging Peace

Afghanistan (Past and Future) and Its Public Health

Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA hosted Dr. Abdullah Hanif at its Feb. 15 Global Issues Forum. A medical doctor pursuing a graduate degree in public health at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Hanif presented a fascinating history of Afghanistan from 328 BCE, when Alexander the Great entered the then-Persian Empire, to the present.

After more than two decades of war, occupation and Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Hanif said, there is an urgent need to build indigenous human capacity in the country. The desperate state of his country’s health services and the severe shortage of leadership in the areas of community-level health and decision making have motivated him, Hanif explained, to seek further preparation for strengthening the new government’s decimated public health system. His goal is to identify and address the preventable causes of the high mortality rate for Afghanistan’s mothers and children.

Hanif blamed these high mortality rates on poor access to health care due to geography, climate, and security issues. Other key factors include child marriages, poverty and malnutrition, along with gender discrimination. During Taliban rule girls were not allowed to attend school, the physician noted, thereby limiting the number of skilled female health care personnel. Most people in rural parts of the country lack education about the importance of health care, and family planning methods which are discouraged or not available in those areas. The Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam prohibited females from being seen by male practitioners, exacerbating the problem.

Hanif said his year at the University of Pittsburgh as an H.J. Heinz Company Foundation Fellow will be crucial to his later assumption of a leadership role in responding to his country’s public health needs in an integrated and structured way. He also is working toward a degree in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. Dr. Hanif’s articulate and poignant presentation brought home to the audience the humanitarian needs facing Afghanistan.

The Global Issues Forum at Mercyhurst continues its exploration of the Middle East with an April 17 appearance by Dr. Pakinaz Baraka, who will discuss Egypt’s internal electoral politics, and a May 24 discussion by Selin Yaclindag on Turkey and the European Union.

Corrine Halperin Egan, Global Issues Forum coordinator, Mercyhurst College