Disease fueled by freezing weather has killed more than 120 Afghan children, with desperate parents feeding their children opium in a bid to alleviate their suffering, the health minister said Saturday.
A total of 128 children have died of ailments including pneumonia, measles and whooping cough, Mohammed Amin Fatemi told The Associated Press. He had no figures for cold-related deaths including adults.
"Many parents are giving opium to the children in the belief it will stop the coughing," Fatemi said. "Maybe for two or three hours it will sedate them, but it is poison for their bodies and can turn them into addicts."
Hundreds of Afghans have reportedly died since heavy snow and freezing temperatures set in across much of Afghanistan in late December, highlighting how vulnerable people remain after more than two decades of impoverishing conflict.
Some have died in accidents and avalanches, while former refugees even in the capital have apparently frozen to death in makeshift camps, also exposing a lack of shelter and health care despite three years of international aid.
Hardest hit appears to be the western province of Ghor, deep in the Hindu Kush mountains, where deep snow has cut off scores of villages.
Fatemi said 62 children had died there in the past three weeks; 46 had died in Kabul, and 20 had died in Badakhshan in the remote northeast.
He said officials were checking reports of cold-related deaths from other provinces and said a statement by Catholic Relief Services, a U.S.-based relief group, that 265 people had died in western Afghanistan were plausible.
Two Afghan helicopters had carried three tons of medicine, including antibiotics, and two teams of doctors and nurses to the area, he said. Similar teams had been dispatched to seven other provinces.
CRS said on Friday its staff had reached only 6,000 people in 16 of the 250 villages in Ghor. Up to $200,000 was being funneled through the group to try to aid the population with stoves, fuel, medicine and snow-clearing machinery, it said.
P.M. Jose, the group's chief representative in Kabul, said his staff had confirmed about 80 child deaths but feared the total will rise "much higher" as other areas are reached. He declined to repeat reported comments from a colleague saying the child toll could top 1,000.
The United Nations and the U.S. military were also airlifting tons of supplies to more than 100,000 people in the southeastern province of Zabul as well as Ghor.
Officials have reported snow up to 20 feet deep in mountainous areas, a killer in the short-term but a boon for the country's farmers after years of drought.
The weather may also have contributed to the Feb. 3 crash of an Afghan airliner, which smashed into a mountain peak in a snowstorm, killings all 104 people on board.
Fog and low cloud again prevented helicopters from ferrying recovery teams to the snowbound crash site on Saturday, said Maj. Gen. Mohammed Moeen Faqir of the Afghan army.
Only six bodies had been recovered intact so far, as well as the partial remains of four other victims, Faqir said.
© 2005 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.