You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Yemen facing worst cholera outbreak in the world, health authorities say

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/29/2017 Sarah Toy
A Yemeni child receives treatment at a hospital in Sana'a, Yemen. © YAHYA ARHAB, EPA A Yemeni child receives treatment at a hospital in Sana'a, Yemen.

Yemen, a country ravaged by war and on the brink of famine, is now facing the worst cholera outbreak in the world, according to international health authorities.

The outbreak has surpassed 200,000 cases, and that number is growing by 5,000 a day, they say. 

“In just two months, cholera has spread to almost every (part) of this war-torn country,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake in a joint statement.

More than 1,300 people have already died — one quarter of them children — and the death toll is expected to rise.

Cholera is caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. If left untreated, it can cause severe dehydration and eventual death. Rarely seen in the U.S. and other industrialized nations, it primarily affects developing areas that lack adequate water treatment or sanitation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WHO.

Cholera is preventable and easily treatable with the proper resources, said Kurt Tjossem, the International Rescue Committee’s regional director for East Africa and the Horn. In Yemen, however, the collapsing infrastructure has cut off an estimated 14.5 million people — about half the country’s population — from regular access to clean water, increasing the likelihood for the disease to spread, the United Nations says. 

“That’s the sad part about it,” Tjossem said.

The crisis is “man-made,” said Stephen O’Brien, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, in a statement last week. For the past two years, Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war between Houthi rebels from the north of the country, backed by Iran, and a coalition of Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States.

This makes the U.S. complicit in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, some say.

“The cholera epidemic is in part due to the bombing of the water supply in Sana’a,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said. “There is a U.S. imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen.”

In May, President Trump announced a deal for $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and the Senate backed him in a narrow 53 to 47 vote in June, rejecting a measure to block part of that deal.

Trump framed the deal as one that would create more American jobs, but lawmakers like Murphy expressed concern about U.S. involvement in civilian casualties. 

“We have continued our support for the Saudi bombing campaign despite the fact that many of these bombings hit civilians,” Murphy said.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, donated $66.7 million to cholera relief efforts in Yemen. As the former defense minister, he oversaw the Saudi-led campaigns there.

UNICEF said in a statement that it “welcomes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a contribution to the cholera response in Yemen by WHO and UNICEF.”

“Such generosity will make a great difference to thousands of children at risk of contracting this rapidly spreading disease,” the statement said.  

The country is in sore need of resources, according to aid workers. The conflict has left more than half of the country’s health facilities non-functional, said Dr. Sherin Varkey, a representative for UNICEF in Yemen. Exacerbating the problem in Yemen is the ever-widening issue of food insecurity and malnutrition, where 2.2 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, he added.

“When malnutrition rises, the immunity of children falls, which makes them more susceptible to diseases like cholera,” Varkey said. 

The country’s economy is crumbling, he said, and health care workers are toiling on without pay.  According to UNICEF and WHO, an estimated 30,000 local health workers have not been paid their salaries for nearly 10 months.

In order to help, aid workers are “working around the clock,” said Chan and Lake in their statement. Along with setting up treatment centers, thousands of volunteers are going into communities to educate families about prevention tactics, such as hand washing and how to handle food safely, Varkey said.

Although he is heartened by the work these people are doing, Varkey thinks the only way for the crisis to truly end is for both parties in the conflict to come to a peaceful resolution.

“It is possibly the most difficult thing, but it is the most important thing,” he said.  

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From USA TODAY

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon