U.S. military changes won't affect Kabul hospital, Fresno doctor says

McClatchy NewspapersJune 29, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The founder of a Fresno-based humanitarian project that provides medical care for Afghan civilians says his project shouldn't be endangered by a recent shakeup in the U.S. military leadership in that country.

"I'm optimistic that our leaders will make the right decisions," Dr. Mark Scoffield said in an interview Tuesday. "Hopefully those decisions will allow us to provide health care."

Scoffield is chief executive officer of American Medical Overseas Relief, which built a hospital in the capital city of Kabul. The Afshar Hospital served 800 patients during its first month of operation in April 2009 and has seen a precipitous increase in demand since then, caring for more than 4,200 patients in May.

On Tuesday, Scoffield met with Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States. By chance, the meeting coincided with a high-stakes confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, currently head of the U.S. Central Command, has been tapped by President Barack Obama to become the top U.S. field commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus' appointment, which is certain to be approved by the Senate, follows the ouster of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal after a controversial Rolling Stone magazine article.

Scoffield acknowledged that political stability in the Afghan capital will be important for future success in providing health care.

"It's going to be interesting to see," he said of the U.S. command shakeup. "To this point, we haven't had any effect of that. We seem to be somewhat isolated by the fact that we're located in Kabul, and then there seems to be another undertone that the terrorists or other organizations that want to disrupt society haven't targeted hospitals."

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who's a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has visited Afshar, added that the hospital's employment of Afghan civilians may protect it from political or military turmoil. The hospital employs 105-115 people, all Afghanis.

The hospital doesn't receive State Department or congressional funding, though Costa noted that he helped American Medical Overseas Relief by setting up a meeting with U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan.

The 125-bed hospital, originally conceived as a clinic by the Assemi family in Fresno, focuses on maternal and pediatric care. Afshar caters to a region in which one in four mothers die in childbirth and as many as 40 percent of children die before age 5, according to a World Health Organization report.

Basic antibiotics, fluids and proper nutrition, Scoffield said, have effectively treated the preventable diseases largely responsible for these staggering statistics. About 40,000 Afghanis have been treated by the hospital.

"I think this is a very good example of how we should be projecting our smart power in Afghanistan and other parts of the Arab world," Costa said in an interview.

American Medical Overseas Relief's grand design reaches beyond Afghanistan, however. It has already pledged to build a hospital in Armenia and hopes to do the same in Karbala, Iraq.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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