War-torn Yemen hit by worsening cholera crisis

Published 05.09.2017 21:01
Updated 11.09.2017 15:12

Yemen's cholera outbreak has infected 612,703 people and killed 2,048 since it began in April, and some districts are still reporting sharp rises in new cases, data from the World Health Organization and Yemen's health ministry showed yesterday. The overall spread of the epidemic has slowed in the past two months, with the daily number of new suspected cases cut to around 3,000 in recent days.

However the epidemic, the most explosive on record in terms of its rapid spread, has continually confounded expectations. Soon after it began, WHO saw a worst-case scenario of 300,000 cases within six months. But by the end of June, WHO was hoping 218,000 cases might be the halfway mark. In late July it said the spread had peaked after infecting 400,000.

Epidemics normally decline as quickly as they arise, so the peak of the disease, which is spread by contaminated food and water, should be roughly half the eventual total caseload. But the decline in the epidemic has been bumpy, and the number of new cases rose in two of the past four weeks.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said some of the most affected areas, such as Sanaa City and the governorates of Hajjah and Amran, had seen falls in the numbers of new cases.

But there had been a "sudden and significant increase" in the number of suspected cases reported from 12 districts, in the governorates of Hodeidah, Al Jawf, Al Mahwit, Ibb, Dhamar, Al Bayda and Aden.

"WHO is currently investigating the reason for this increase. A key aim of the investigation will be to determine whether the numbers are accurate and whether the spike in suspected cases is, in fact, caused by cholera or another diarrheal disease like rotavirus," Jasarevic said.

Save the Children, a charity running cholera treatment centers, said last Friday that suspected cases in Hodeidah governorate had jumped by 40 percent in three weeks amid heavy rains and a heatwave, and in some districts weekly caseloads were double their previous peaks.

The disease, spread by ingestion of food or water tainted with human feces, can kill within hours if untreated. It has been largely eradicated in developed countries equipped with sanitation systems and water treatment.

With a shattered healthcare system, Yemen is not able to cope with a major cholera outbreak that is now killing more people than the country's ongoing war. The cholera outbreak has wiped out the wreckage of what once the Yemeni healthcare system. With the rainy season approaching, there is a risk that cholera - which already kills more people every month than the violence itself - will multiply even faster, the U.N. warned earlier. The collapse of Yemen's infrastructure after more than two years of war between the Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Houthis rebels who control the capital Sanaa has allowed the country's cholera epidemic to swell to the largest in the world. The WHO warned that the disease had spread rapidly due to deteriorating hygiene and sanitation conditions, with millions of people cut off from clean water across the country.

The conflict has intensified in the past two years, and the latest outbreak of cholera at the end of April led to the declaration of a state of emergency in Sanaa, which is held by anti-government fighters. So far, 20 out of Yemen's 22 provinces have been hit by the outbreak. Two years of war between the Houthis and government forces backed by a Saudi-led military coalition have killed more than 5,000 people. "Between March 2015... and 30 August, at least 5,144 civilians have been documented as killed and more than 8,749 injured. Children accounted for 1,184 of those who were killed," the U.N. human rights office said yesterday, renewing its calls for an international probe into the conflict.

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