Yemen's cholera outbreak now the worst in history as millionth case looms

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A mother sits with her sons while they are treated at a cholera centre in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen
A mother sits with her sons while they are treated at a cholera centre in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The country’s cholera epidemic could reach 1 million cases by the end of the year. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

The cholera epidemic in Yemen has become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history, with a million cases expected by the end of the year and at least 600,000 children likely to be affected.

The World Health Organization has reported more than 815,000 suspected cases of the disease in Yemen and 2,156 deaths. About 4,000 suspected cases are being reported daily, more than half of which are among children under 18. Children under five account for a quarter of all cases.

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The spread of the outbreak, which has quickly surpassed Haiti as the biggest since modern records began in 1949, has been exacerbated by hunger and malnutrition. While there were 815,000 cases of cholera in Haiti between 2010 and 2017, Yemen has exceeded that number in just six months.

Save the Children has warned that, at the current rate of infection, the number of cases will reach seven figures before the turn of the year, 60% of which will be among children. In July, the International Committee of the Red Cross predicted there would be 600,000 suspected cholera cases in the country by the end of the year.

Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s country director for Yemen, said an outbreak of this scale and speed is “what you get when a country is brought to its knees by conflict, when a healthcare system is on the brink of collapse, when its children are starving, and when its people are blocked from getting the medical treatment they need”.

Kirolos said: “There’s no doubt this is a man-made crisis. Cholera only rears its head when there’s a complete and total breakdown in sanitation. All parties to the conflict must take responsibility for the health emergency we find ourselves in.”

More than two years of fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels has crippled the country, causing widespread internal displacement, the collapse of the public health system, and leaving millions on the brink of famine.

When I see a mother lose her baby because of cholera, it makes me so angry

Dr Mariam Aldogani, Save the Children

The crisis was exacerbated when sanitation workers whose salaries had gone unpaid went on strike. This meant garbage was left on the streets, which was then washed into the water supply. It is estimated that 19.3 million Yemenis – more than two-thirds of the population – do not have access to clean water and sanitation.

The government stopped funding the public health department in 2016, meaning many doctors and hospital staff have not received salaries for more than a year. Healthcare has since been provided mainly by international organisations, the efforts of whom have been hampered by the conflict.

The spread of the disease has nonetheless slowed. At the beginning of the most recent outbreak, in May this year, between 5,000 and 6,000 new cases were detected daily. That rate has since dropped to just under 4,000 a day. The mortality rate has also declined, from 1% at the beginning of the outbreak to 0.26% now.

“Whatever decline we’re seeing now is due to the heroic efforts of workers at the scene,” said Sherin Varkey, the officiating representative of Unicef Yemen.

Varkey said the situation would not be solved until there was peace in the country.

“There are no signals that give us any reason for optimism. We know that both parties to the conflict are continuing with their blatant disregard of the rights of children,” he said. “We’re at a cliff and we’re staring down and it is bottomless. There seems to be no hope.”

A worker is pictured in a government hospital’s drug store in Sana’a, Yemen
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A worker is seen at a government hospital’s drug store in Sana’a, Yemen. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Cholera should be easily treatable with oral rehydration salts and access to clean water. But Mariam Aldogani, Save the Children’s health adviser for the city of Hodeidah, said conditions in the country had made this very difficult.

Aldogani said: “All the NGOs are trying to increase the knowledge of how to prevent the disease, because it’s preventable, you have to boil the water. But if you don’t have money to buy gas, and you have to walk a long way to get the wood, how can you boil the water?”

Aldogani, who has been a doctor since 2010, said witnessing the suffering of her patients was deeply painful. “I saw one young man, he had cholera and severe dehydration. He was in a coma and he died in front of his mother. We tried our best, but he came too late and she was crying, and I cried. It makes me angry. When I see a mother lose her baby, especially a stillbirth, she waits for this baby for a long time and then she loses it because of cholera, it makes me so angry.

“The war is a big problem for us, it’s a wound. But with the cholera, you have the wound and you put salt in the wound. It hurts. I hope this war can be stopped. We need peace for the children of Yemen. Our situation before the war was not good, but it was not like this.”

Stanley Ward
By Stanley Ward 12/10/2017 10:34:00