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Yemen cholera outbreak claims one life every hour

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The rising number of suspected cases of cholera resulting from a severe outbreak in Yemen has passed 100,000, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports.

Cholera is affecting the most vulnerable. Children under the age of 15 years account for 46 per cent of cases, and those aged over 60 years represent 33 per cent of fatalities.

Cholera, an acute enteric infection, is caused by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholera. It can kill children within just a few hours. Cholera should be an easily treatable disease when there is access to functioning medical services. 

WHO believes that cholera is primarily linked to insufficient access to safe water and proper sanitation and its impact can be even more dramatic in areas where basic environmental infrastructures are disrupted or have been destroyed.

Humanitarian partners have been responding to the cholera outbreak since October 2016.  However, Yemen’s health, water and sanitation systems are collapsing after two years of war. The risk of the epidemic spreading further and affecting thousands more is real as the water hygiene systems are unable to cope.

The UN Office for the Co-ordinatior of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Jamie McGoldrick said the fast spreading epidemic in Yemen was “of an unprecedented scale”.

Mr Goldrick also fears that hundreds of thousands of people are at a greater risk of dying as they face the “triple threat” of conflict, starvation and cholera. He believes the cause is clear.

“Malnutrition and cholera are interconnected; weakened and hungry people are more likely to contract cholera and cholera is more likely to flourish in places where malnutrition exists,” Mr Goldrick said. 

More than half of Yemen’s health facilities are no longer functioning, with almost 300 having been damaged or destroyed in the fighting.

Systems that are central to help treat and prevent outbreaks of the disease have failing in Yemen. Fifty per cent of medical facilities no longer function. Some have been bombed and others have ground to a halt because there is no funding.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Director of Operations Dominik Stillhart said: “Hospitals are understaffed and cannot accommodate the influx of patients – with up to four people seeking treatment per bed. There are people in the garden, and some even in their cars with the IV drip hanging from the window.”

Local health workers, including doctors and nurses have not been paid for eight months; only 30 per cent of required medical supplies are being imported into the country; rubbish collection in the cities is irregular; and more than eight million people lack access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation.

UNICEF is reported to have flown in over 40 tonnes of medicines, rehydration salts, intravenous fluids and other life-saving supplies to treat approximately 50,000 patients in Yemen.

Meredith Horne