Meeting the challenge: mother and child safety in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan

Each year, the Royal Society for Asian Affairs invites applications for the JPT Family Trust Medical Science Award, offered to support young medical students to travel to Asia and conduct work in challenging environments.

Dr Jon Anderson received the award in 2014 as a second-year medical student, to fund a trip to Afghanistan alongside the charity Afghan Mother & Child Rescue. He shares with us his experiences in Afghanistan, and the life-changing effects of the project.

“The JPT Award was advertised on my medical school intranet, emailed as a circular to all medical students. I was looking for funding for a project at the time, so the email was fortuitous.

I had recently met two gentlemen, Brigadier Peter Stewart-Richardson and Roddy Jones, now sadly both deceased, who ran Afghan Mother & Child Rescue, a charity that has run maternal and child health initiatives in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan for 20+ years. They had agreed to include me in their 2014 visit to assess current and future projects. This meant fundraising the flights, visa and certain costs once in-country.

The application process wasn’t taxing; I spent an evening filling out my proposal form, outlining costs, the purpose of the trip and future intentions with the charity. I heard fairly promptly once the board had sat that my application was successful and I was able to proceed with the project.

Once the funding was in place and arrangements made, the three of us flew to Kabul, met with our driver and spent a few days in the city, having meetings with Afghan and International health organisations; Ministry of Health, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). These were to discuss projects in the Panjshir, safety briefings and security updates from the SCA and look at funding options with DFiD. We then moved up to the Panjshir for 4 days to look at clinics and one school already funded in part by our charity, and to seek other potential projects.

The headline issues in the region affecting mothers and children are:

  • maternal and infant mortality is still frighteningly high;
  • access for women to primary healthcare for delivery of children limited, due to terrain, distances involved, available beds;
  • power supply to clinics is sporadic, solar power seems to be the most cost effective method if well maintained;
  • national elections occurred just before we flew, so there was a spike in violence. We kept a low profile and had no problems but security is of course a major constraint to healthcare improvement.

As a result of the visit, we made plans to continue funding primary schools, both resources and teacher’s wages, and support the provision of solar power to all clinics.

The trip to Afghanistan was a life changing experience. The difference between resources seen in the NHS and Obstetrics clinics on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan, with no running water or electricity, still makes me feel very fortunate to live and practice medicine in the UK.

This trip spurred me on to pursue further global health experiences; my elective in the final year of medical school was a month working in an emergency clinic in the West Bank, Palestine. I am currently applying for a senior house officer’s job in South Africa, to work in a rural healthcare setting.

My advice for other medical students thinking about applying for funding? Get started today!

Not only did I benefit from this life-changing trip, but subsequent to the award I have spoken for the RSAA on a few occasions to different audiences about my experiences. This in itself has been rewarding (and something useful to put in the dreaded doctor’s e-portfolio!).”

Discover more about the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, and explore their journal Asian Affairs.

Dr Jon Anderson with Roddy Jones and Brigadier Stewart-Richardson

Jon Anderson is a 36-yr old junior doctor working in Southampton General Hospital. He is applying to work in a rural hospital in South Africa for 2018. He originally studied philosophy and history at Keele, before spending a year teaching English in Spain, and was then commissioned into the Royal Marines. He served for 7 years, becoming a captain, travelling widely with work, including operational tours to Afghanistan and Iraq. It was during his third tour to Afghanistan in 2010 that he made two decisions; the first to resign his commission in favour of a career in medicine and the second, to make a lasting commitment to Afghanistan in a humanitarian role. He has achieved the first, the second is work in progress. In his spare time he is a keen mountaineer and father of two very messy, demanding, small boys.