UNICEF and the WHO Racing to End Yemen’s Cholera Outbreak
Faced with ongoing violence and humanitarian crises, war-torn Yemen is now experiencing the worst cholera outbreak in the world. As the poorest nation in the Arabian Peninsula, the epidemic is spreading rapidly; however, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working vigilantly to end Yemen’s cholera outbreak.
Cholera, which is spread through contaminated food and water, is a highly contagious bacterial infection. Although cholera is easily treatable, it can prove fatal within hours if left untreated. This is what makes the outbreak in Yemen so dangerous; because of the civil war, treatment can be difficult to find.
In just two months, more than 1,300 people have died in the outbreak, and 25 percent of the casualties are children. UNICEF has reported a suspected 200,000 cases, increasing at a rate of about 5,000 cases a day.
With the armed conflict over the past two years displacing more than 11 percent of Yemen’s population and wounding more than 45,000 people, the outbreak is considered a direct result of the war. Due to the civil war, 14.5 million people have lost access to clean water and sanitation. The impact on children is disproportionate because they are most prone to malnutrition, which makes them even more susceptible to cholera.
But susceptibility is not the only cause of this unprecedented outbreak; the epidemic also is widespread because of a lack of medical access. Most patients have difficulty reaching the few medical facilities within Yemen. Some travel hours to the Sabeen Hospital, which is already overcrowded from those wounded in the war. Of those treating the infected, an estimated 30,000 local health workers have not been paid their salaries in more than 10 months. The limited access to treatment is making Yemen’s cholera outbreak even more severe; humanitarian group Oxfam has called for a ceasefire, but its efforts were unsuccessful.
To slow the outbreak, UNICEF and the WHO are focusing their efforts on accessibility to clean water and sanitation development, as well as medical treatment. Rapid response teams are even going door-to-door to reach families, teaching techniques on storing water and how to protect against the disease.
The largest quantity of emergency oral cholera vaccines—one million doses—was recently approved for use in Yemen. The WHO plans to distribute the vaccine by going house-to-house in priority areas. UNICEF and the WHO have also received a grant of $66.7 million from Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This donation, according to UNICEF, “will make a great difference to thousands of children at risk of contracting this rapidly spreading disease.”
Although the war-torn nation faces a series of humanitarian crises, the efforts of UNICEF and the WHO against Yemen’s cholera outbreak are proving effective. With increasing funding and the approval of vaccines, the fight against cholera seems optimistic.
– Kelly Hayes