Yemen cholera epidemic now worst in modern history at 360,000 cases and counting

Deadly disease outbreak is now largest in any country in a single year since records began and will worsen in approaching rainy season, charity warns 

Helen Hoddinott
Friday 21 July 2017 00:03 BST
Yemen cholera epidemic: Worst in modern history at 360,000 cases and counting

Yemen’s ballooning cholera epidemic is now the single biggest outbreak of the disease since records began, infecting more than 360,000 people as the country also struggles with war, famine and imminent state collapse.

Since the first suspected case was recorded in March the outbreak has surpassed the previous annual record of new cases set by Haiti in 2011 340,311, Oxfam said on Friday, and has the potential to infect over 600,000 people.

Almost 2,000 people have already died from the acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water. Cholera can kill the old, young and otherwise sick in hours if fluids are not replaced.

Around half of cases and a quarter of the dead so far are children under the age of 15, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said earlier this month.

Overwhelmed medical staff are now dealing with cholera in all 22 of Yemen’s provinces. While in some regions the initial rapid increase in suspected cases is slowing, in areas affected by the worst fighting the disease is still spreading rapidly - and the approaching rainy season is likely to make matters worse, Oxfam warned.

“This is a massive crisis needing a massive response - if anything the numbers we have are likely to underestimate the scale of the crisis. So far funding from government donors to pay for the aid effort has been lacklustre at best, less than half is what is needed,” said Oxfam’s Humanitarian Director Neil Timmis in a statement after his return from a fact finding mission to the country.

While cholera is easily treatable - and preventable - with proper sanitation procedures, after more than two years of war, Yemen’s health, water and sanitation systems are on the verge of collapse.

Less than half of the country’s medical centres are still functional, 14.5 million people don’t have regular access to clean water, and in several provinces health and sanitation workers have not been paid in months.

The circumstances have made it difficult for international aid organisations to operate. Last week, the UN said that up to one million doses of cholera vaccines may have to be diverted elsewhere thanks to logistical difficulties caused by the Saudi-led siege on the country.

Saudi Arabia and its regional partners have used the spectre of Iran to justify an extensive bombing campaign on Yemen’s Shia Houthi rebels, who control the capital Sanaa, at the request of the exiled, internationally recognised Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Riyadh has also effectively closed down Yemen’s air and seaports preventing the import of food and medicine, and an intense Saudi-led bombing campaign – which has in some cases targeted civilian buildings such as hospitals and funeral gatherings – has killed at least 10,000 people.

Theresa May can't give assurances that no civilians have been killed by British arms in Yemen

Western governments including the UK have been heavily criticised for selling weapons export licences to Saudi Arabia, which rights groups say are destined for use in Yemen’s war.

Officials within former US President Barack Obama’s administration worried the sales could amount to complicity in war crimes.

The UN estimates $2.1bn (£1.6bn) is needed to stop Yemen become a completely failed state, but donor governments only pledged half that amount at an aid conference in Geneva in April.

Oxfam - and all other major humanitarian organisations - are calling for an immediate ceasefire to address the dire situation.

“Those countries providing the arms and military support, such as the US and the UK, are fuelling a war that is causing widespread suffering and tipping a whole nation towards a catastrophe. It is hard to imagine how much more Yemen can take before it collapses entirely,” Mr Timmis added.

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