Yemen battles cholera epidemic amid ongoing conflict

More than 109,000 cases reported in three months as Saudi-led war exacerbates crisis

Yemeni protesters hold placards during a demonstration outside the United Nations office to lift the siege on the port of Hodeida, in the capital Sana’a. Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni protesters hold placards during a demonstration outside the United Nations office to lift the siege on the port of Hodeida, in the capital Sana’a. Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

 

While Yemenis have marked with protests the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led war on their country, cholera continues to spread with 1,000 new cases daily.

The World Health Organization has reported that from January 1st to mid-March “nearly 109,000 cases of severe acute watery diarrhoea and suspected cholera were reported with 190 total associated deaths”.

Nearly one-third of the reported cases were children under the age of five.

This comes two years after Yemen witnessed the world’s largest outbreak of cholera, when more than a million cases were reported.

In response to the latest crisis, Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the dozens of UN and relief agencies operating in Yemen, has stepped up its response to “prevent cholera from spreading across the country”.

MSF operations chief for Yemen Christian Katzer told The Irish Times that following the earlier spike in cases, there had been a reduction but now the “prolonged mix of war, economic collapse and lack of access” had sent the number of cases soaring.

Mr Katzer, who recently returned from Yemen to MSF headquarters in Geneva, said patients were often “late to seek treatment, increasing infection and mortality rates”.

Sometimes going to health centres was more dangerous than staying at home, he said, as people must cross front lines or risk clashes between Saudi- and Emirati-supported armed groups. Patients also had to cross checkpoints where militiamen extract money.

Mr Katzer said continuous conflict had damaged infrastructure and created economic pressure. Due to the increase in the price of fuel, the cost of food had risen and people’s health was consequently affected.

MSF’s head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Boucenine, warned that the forthcoming rainy season could aggravate the situation. Strengthening water and sanitation activities was a priority, he said, as they were essential in the fight against cholera.

Healthcare facilities have frequently been struck in Saudi air raids. The latest attack killed eight at a hospital in the rebel-held north, Save the Children reported. Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of striking schools, markets and residential areas as well as hospitals.

Arms bought from the UK, the US, China, France, and other states had been transferred to “completely unaccountable coalition-allied militias, some of whom stand accused of war crimes”, Amnesty said.

The UN has reimposed a ceasefire after coalition and rebel Houthi forces exchanged rocket, mortar and artillery fire on Monday around the port of Hodeidah, through which 80 per cent of Yemen’s food and humanitarian supplies flow. Some 24 million of Yemen’s 28 million people depend on food aid from UN and other relief agencies. Delivery through Hodeidah has been partially blocked by the coalition.

This week’s clashes were the worst since an agreement was reached last December for a ceasefire, disengagement and withdrawal of Houthi and coalition forces from Hodeidah and two other ports.

Since the war began, at least 60,000 people have died, two million have been displaced and the country has been driven to the brink of famine; the UN estimates 85,000 children have died from starvation or disease.

Backed by the US, UK and Europe, Sunni Saudis and Emiratis claim they are fighting a proxy war with Shia Iran via Shia Houthis, who receive minimal material support from Tehran.

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