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Health-care system in complete shambles in war-torn Afghanistan

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Even a minor illness can be fatal in today's Afghanistan.

Most humanitarian aid groups have pulled out of the beleaguered capital rather than heed an order from the ruling Taliban religious army to move into abandoned university dormitories.The few foreigners left behind by the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization race around trying to help local health workers keep dozens of clinics and 14 hospitals running with few medical supplies.

After two decades of war, Afghanistan is an all too easy place to get sick or wounded. Apart from causing injuries, artillery, rocket and mortar fire have wrecked the city's water, sewage and sanitation systems, inviting epidemics like the current cholera outbreak in Kabul.

Dr. Mohammed Daim Kakar, a director for WHO, the U.N. health agency, said medical supplies are critically needed by the infectious diseases control center.

But even treating minor maladies is a daunting job in overflowing civilian hospitals that often have to turn away the sick.

"We are short of everything - medicines, equipment, doctors," said Dr. Maruf Aram, deputy head of the medical department at Aliabad Hospital, once one of Kabul's finest.

Outside Aliabad, a teaching hospital that used to attract the country's best doctors, patients in unwashed clothes carry their own intravenous drips as they shuffle around the compound. A white and red ambulance, though much needed, sits in the parking lot, sagging on a flat tire, its headlights smashed.

Beneath the trees, patients lie on the grass and chat with visiting kin. An old man, barely able to hold his head up, gets a haircut from his son.

Not even the original Aliabad survives. Four years of warfare between rival Islamic factions left the building in ruins, forcing relocation to a shabby maternity hospital, where the steel beds are barely covered with tattered sheets.

Most of the hospital's windows are broken, and the building's last coat of paint is little more than a memory.

The hospital is so short of drugs that patients have to buy their own at local markets. If they can't afford them, "that's their problem," Aram said.

Not even doctors have money because few have seen their roughly $10-a-month wage in four or five months.

"We have no economy, but we do what we can," said Sher Mohammed Stanikzai, deputy public health minister for the Taliban government. "We provide some essential medicines and equipment, but there is very little money."

The Red Cross says it cannot fill the gap left by the departure of humanitarian groups.

Even before the aid groups pulled out, health care was a sensitive issue because the Taliban ordered the segregation of male and female patients and dismissed female health-care workers.