Disease adds to woes of Yemenis struggling to cope with war

Aid agencies warn that deadly cholera outbreak could flare up again when rainy season arrives

Yemeni children fill empty jerrycans with water from a donated source amid ongoing widespread disruption of water supplies in an impoverished coastal village on the outskirts of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, on October 18, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER
Powered by automated translation

A cholera outbreak that has claimed more 2,200 lives in Yemen is likely to intensify next month when the rainy season begins, international aid organisations warn.

More than 1 million cholera cases have been reported since last April year, making it the largest outbreak of the disease in history, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Although cases of cholera typically flare up during the rainy season in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, its ability to combat disease has been complicated by three years of civil war.

Diphtheria, a deadly infectious disease once thought to have been largely eradicated, has now joined cholera as a public-health menace in Yemen. First detected late last year, the disease had caused 59 deaths among 914 suspected cases by early February, according to the World Health Organisation.

Many of Yemen's medical facilities have been damaged in the war, and distributing aid and medicine has become more difficult because of blockades imposed by both the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and government forces.

The Houthi takeover of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, prompted a Saudi-led Arab coalition, which includes the UAE, to intervene on behalf of the government.

The southern port city of Aden, the interim capital, and other areas controlled by the government have been bolstered by humanitarian aid from the coalition and international organisations and are substantially better equipped to deal with outbreaks of disease than areas under rebel control.

According to Unicef, 70 per cent of Yemenis are in need of aid and 82 per cent of all cholera cases were in the northern part of the country, which is largely controlled by the rebels.

The UN Security Council warned this month that conditions in Yemen were deteriorating and having a "devastating" impact on civilians, with 22.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance out of a population of 27 million

Read more: 
New UN envoy visits Sanaa in first official trip to Yemen
Mattis says US backs Saudi efforts to end Yemen war


The Red Cross has more than doubled its Yemen budget for 2018 in anticipation of an increased humanitarian burden.

Although organisations such as the Red Cross and the Emirates Red Crescent, which has spent almost Dh10 billion on Yemen since the war began, have increased their efforts, the support is not universal as other humanitarian disasters occupy much of international aid community's attention.

"Yemen doesn't get the same attention as conflicts like in Syria but the situation is disheartening for children. 11.3 million children in Yemen are in need of assistance," said Bismarck Swangin, spokesman for Unicef Yemen. "These are serious issues that the world should focus on."

The Houthi-controlled north is often subject to the worst of the humanitarian crisis, he said.

This is in large part due to obstacles faced by international organisations' attempts to provide assistance.

Several UN-chartered ships carrying food supplies have been forced to turn back after shelling by the Houthis. UN reports of Iranian weaponry entering Yemen have prompted the coalition to impose a strict inspection process on all cargo headed to Hodeidah, the country’s largest port still under Houthi control.

The coalition denies claims that it has blocked the port. Its spokesman, Colonel Turki Al Maliki, said last week that the port was "fully open" and the coalition was carrying out inspection procedures together with the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (Unvim).

"The coalition co-operates closely with Unvim to ensure a safe and regulated environment for maritime shipping, both commercial and humanitarian," Col Maliki said.

He accused the Houthis of levying fees on critical goods to fund their war chest and Iran of smuggling in weapons for the rebels.

Given the threat of another cholera outbreak in Yemen, providing medical equipment and bolstering hospital capacity is the greatest need. Although the rate of cholera infections has dropped, along with the mortality rate, it remains the worst health crisis for a preventable disease in modern times.

“While this outbreak has clearly plateaued, the rainy season ahead significantly increases the risk of re-emergence of waterborne diseases, and there is therefore a serious concern around it,” an Red Cross spokesperson said.

Mr Swangin said Unicef and its partners were "stepping up community education and awareness on how to prevent diseases" ahead of the rainy season.