Humanitarians alarmed by rapid spread of cholera in Yemen

Women are treated for a suspected cholera infection at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, May. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Leading humanitarian groups warn that the cholera outbreak gripping Yemen threatens to spread across the country, which is already struggling with famine and conflict.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling the spread of the waterborne disease “unprecedented,” and Doctors Without Borders warned that the outbreak is “threatening to spiral out.”

The number of suspected cases has doubled in less than a week – which means we could see up to 300,000 cases within six months, according to WHO projections.

“The speed of the resurgence of this cholera epidemic is unprecedented,” WHO Country Representative for Yemen Nevio Zagaria told reporters. “You can understand that with this number the price that we will pay in terms of lives will be extremely, extremely high.”

The WHO is in “full emergency mode,” according to Zagaria. It is responding alongside humanitarian groups and the weakened Yemeni government to prevent further spread and to treat those infected. Doctors Without Borders is running four treatment centers and nine treatment units across Yemen.

Cholera is now in 18 of the country’s 22 governates, infecting roughly 50,000 people – a quarter were infected just this past week. More than 242 people have died and the number is expected to climb, WHO officials said. In response, the leaders of the opposition Houthi rebels declared a state of emergency last Sunday.

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“Before the outbreak, the health system was already overstretched and people’s health needs were already huge,” Ghassan Abou Chaar, the head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Yemen, said in a statement. “To bring the outbreak under control, it won’t be enough simply to treat those people who reach medical facilities. We also need to address the source of the disease, by improving water and sanitation and working in communities to prevent new cases.”

The cholera outbreak is directly connected to the two-year-old conflict between the government and Houthi-led rebels. Basic health-care and sanitation services that treat and prevent outbreaks like this no longer function. Many hospitals and clinics are closed, and the few that still function face shortages of the intravenous fluids and oral rehydration salts needed to treat people with cholera. Other basic services, including trash pick up, have transformed city streets into public wastebaskets.

Conflict is also behind the hunger crisis that affects 17 million people, including 3 million children who are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The cholera outbreak that began in October 2016 accelerated in recent weeks after heavy rains and warm weather.  As a result, some 7.6 million people are at risk.

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A cholera infection causes acute diarrhea, which can turn fatal of untreated. People fall ill when they consume contaminated water. That is an issue in Yemen where up to two-thirds of people do not have access to clean drinking water. Ensuring everyone has access to clean drinking water is the only way to prevent cholera – something that is not possible given the current conflict.

Despite the challenges aid groups called on the international community and individual donors to support their response. Both groups fighting need to ensure humanitarian workers can safely travel and operate in Yemen said Doctors Without Borders. It also called on Yemen to allow the import of medical supplies, a point echoed by Save the Children.

“Children are dying from an entirely preventable disease right in front of our eyes,” Muhsin Siddiquey, Yemen Acting Country Director, Save the Children, said in a statement. “But we need ongoing restrictions on imports of medical supplies to be lifted and funding to come in straight away before it is too late.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.