KABUL, Afghanistan – Disease fueled by freezing weather has killed more than 120 Afghan children, and desperate parents are 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 said he had no figures for cold-related deaths among 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 (search) 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, exposing a lack of basic necessities despite three years of international aid.
The hardest hit area appears to be the western province of Ghor, deep in the Hindu Kush (search) 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 (search), a U.S.-based relief group, that 265 people had died in western Afghanistan were plausible.
Two Afghan helicopters 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 that 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.