Yemen: polio reported after Houthi fatwa bans vaccines

First outbreak in 14 years involves 16 children in northern Saada province

Displaced Yemeni children attend a class in a house turned into a school in the northern province, on November 4, 2020.  / AFP / ESSA AHMED
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Polio has been reported in Yemen for the first time since the disease was eradicated in 2006.

Sixteen cases were recorded after the Houthi rebels denied vaccination teams access to the province of Saada, the group's stronghold in northern Yemen, for more than two years, Dr Eshraq Al Subaei, Yemen's deputy minister of public health, told The National.

"They prevented the vaccination campaigns from accessing their region based on extremist religious fatwas issued by top Houthi religious figures along with trivial pretexts regarding security," Mr Al Subaei said.

Dr Taha Boutag, health manager of Saada province and a government loyalist, told The National from exile in Marib province that the Houthis have rejected polio vaccination campaigns for a long time in the areas under their control, such as Saada and neighbouring provinces.

“The Houthi authorities in Saada usually don’t impose official bans on vaccination campaigns to avoid accountability, but they let high ranking medical staff loyal to them warn parents of hidden motives behind the vaccine, to deter them from administering it to their children," Dr Boutag said.

Many pro-Houthi doctors wrote unfounded posts on Facebook to tell residents that vaccines will kill their children or cause permanent disabilities, he said

Dr Boutag said "we don’t have exact statistics or details about the districts where the polio cases were recorded because we still work from Marib. As a result, we face lots of difficulties in contacting the health offices in the areas still held by the Houthi group".

During an online meeting last week with the WHO and Unicef, Yemeni Minister of Public Health Dr Nasser Baaum called on the UN and the other international organisations to support the Yemeni government's efforts to curb the spread of polio cases in Saada and elsewhere, state-owned Saba news reported.

Dr Baaum said supplementary vaccination campaigns will be carried out in the Houthi-held provinces of Saada and some regions of Hajja as soon as possible.

Displaced Yemeni children attend an open air class in the shade of a tree in the district of Abs in the northern Hajjah province, on November 4, 2020.  / AFP / ESSA AHMED

Unicef announced that the first batch of oral polio vaccines to be used in the campaigns taking place in Houthi-held Saada, Hajja, Amran and Al Jawf arrived last month.

Houthi health authorities rejected the shipment, the organisation said, on the grounds it did not meet international standards.

Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, the WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, and Ted Chaiban, Unicef regional director for the Middle East and North Africa region, issued a joint statement in September confirming that recent vaccine-derived polio outbreaks in Yemen were a consequence of low levels of immunity among children.