Cholera adds to war's toll on Yemenis


New York: Cholera, a waterborne disease that can quickly explode into a public health disaster, has begun to spread in Yemen, a war-ravaged country ill equipped to fight it.

The World Health Organisation and Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity, reported on Tuesday what they described as alarming increases in the number of cholera cases in Yemen in the past few weeks.

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said children in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and other places would suffer if he did not remove the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from a blacklist for its role in killing hundreds of children.

“We are very concerned that the disease will continue to spread and become out of control,” said Shinjiro Murata, the head of the Yemen mission for Doctors Without Borders.

Murata said the charity’s teams in Yemen had seen a drastic rise in cholera, treating more than 780 patients in five provinces since March 30. He called for an urgent increase in humanitarian assistance “to limit the spread of the outbreak and anticipate other potential outbreaks”.

The WHO, the public health arm of the United Nations, reported 2022 suspected cases of cholera and acute watery diarrhoea in Yemen from April 27 to this past Sunday, including at least 34 deaths.

Cholera has long been an underlying risk in Yemen, but it subsided during the cold winter months this year. With the sudden spike of cases, health officials are fearing the worst.

“We are facing a reactivation of the cholera epidemic,” Dr Nevio Zagaria, the WHO’s representative in Yemen, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

The outbreak has affected Sanaa, the capital, where news agencies have reported on piles of garbage and clogged sewage drains related to a strike by sanitation workers exasperated over weeks of unpaid wages.

Spread by faeces in contaminated water, cholera can cause severe vomiting and diarrhoea, and it can lead to fatal dehydration within hours if untreated with fluids and antibiotics.

The danger of a cholera epidemic in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been greatly amplified by what amounts to a collapse in the public health system because of the two-year-old war between Iran-backed Houthi insurgents and the government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis last month called for a political solution to the conflict, but stopped short of publicly warning Washington’s allies against a planned bombing campaign targeting the port city of al-Hudaydah.

Many of Yemen’s food shipments come through the port, and international humanitarian officials have warned that a sustained bombing of the city will deepen the country’s already severe food shortages. 

US officials acknowledged concern about the effects of a sustained bombing campaign, but they also said both sides would be more likely to compromise after one more military fight. The Houthis will not return to the bargaining table unless they are weaker militarily, and the Saudis need a face-saving way to justify a war that has damaged their image abroad.

Since the war began in March 2015, many hospitals, which have been damaged by air strikes and other attacks, have closed, essentially denying medical access to vast portions of the country.

The outbreak only further compounds the acute deprivations in Yemen, where roughly 17 million people – about two-thirds of the population – are facing severe hunger and possible famine. An estimated 2 million Yemeni children under the age of five are considered acutely malnourished.

The International Rescue Committee, an aid group that responds to the most urgent disasters, has called Yemen “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

Even if Saudi Arabia and its allies do wrest control of al-Hudaydah from the Houthis, “it seems likely that the Houthis could lose the port but keep it insecure,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“In that circumstance, aid to the seven million Yemenis at risk of famine will be harder to get through,” he said. “I suspect any humanitarian catastrophe would be blamed on the Saudis and [their main allies, the United Arab Emirates], and not the Houthis.”

New York Times

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