The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Monday, August 14th that the number of reported cholera cases in Yemen has exceeded half a million. Almost 2000 people have died from the waterborne bacterial disease, within four months, since its outbreak at the end of April. The epidemic is the largest outbreak ever to have been recorded in a country in a single year and has rapidly spread due to deteriorating hygiene and sanitation conditions. This has been exacerbated by millions of people lacking access to clean water, the cessation of waste collection in main cities, and the collapse of the health care system. Conditions for healthcare workers are dire, with significant shortages of medicines and supplies, and many have not been paid for almost a year. Despite cholera being an easily preventable disease, the current conflict being waged in the country is hindering meaningful attempts to deal with this purely man-made crisis.
WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged for increased support for Yemen’s health system and its workers, and called on the Yemeni authorities “to find a political solution to this conflict that has already caused so much suffering.” Additionally, he said that “the people of Yemen cannot bear it much longer – they need peace to rebuild their lives and their country.” As well, Oxfam has recently published a report detailing how infected Yemenis are having to choose to pay for the costs of medicine, doctor’s fees, and transportation over their daily food needs. Shane Stevenson, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen said “The world is shamefully failing [Yemenis]. A new disaster after another is leading to a man-made catastrophe in Yemen and thousands of people face stark live or die choices every day. What more needs to happen in Yemen for the international community to properly respond?”
The current humanitarian response has not been adequate to stem the crisis. The international community needs to step up its support to those in need and pressure the warring parties to reach a diplomatic resolution. Many aid organizations are finding it difficult to reach recently-infected remote areas due to access restrictions, and necessary food and medical supplies have been curtailed by the Saudi-led coalition blockade on Yemen’s airspace and ports. The funding shortage must urgently be addressed as the UN’s 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan has received only 44% of funding for its $2.1 billion appeal. As a result, funds allocated to maintain food security are being used towards the cholera crisis.
Yemen is experiencing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises ever due to the two year-long conflict between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition. Its healthcare system has come under heavy strain to combat the cholera epidemic, as more than half of all medical facilities have closed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than a quarter of those who have died, and 41% of those who have been infected, have been children. This combination of the cholera epidemic, widespread malnutrition, and destruction of infrastructure severely affects any future attempts to rebuild the country.
As each day more than 5000 new cases are reported, immediate humanitarian action, through increased support for health services, must be taken to prevent further deaths from the disease. WHO claims that “more than 99% of people sick with suspected cholera who can access health services are surviving” but in the current situation, “nearly 15 million people are unable to get basic healthcare.” Whilst the number of reported cases has somewhat declined, it is still continuing to spread throughout the country, and there are fears it will grow significantly with the current seasonal rains. It is clear that as long as the conflict continues, providing Yemenis secure access to clean water will remain a difficult challenge.
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