Yemen battles to contain cholera outbreak

By Faisal Darem in Sanaa

A Yemeni child receives treatment at a hospital in Sanaa on October 29th. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

A Yemeni child receives treatment at a hospital in Sanaa on October 29th. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Yemen's Public Health and Water and Environment ministries are working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF to contain a nationwide outbreak of cholera, officials told Al-Mashareq.

Since the UN first announced an outbreak of the disease in Yemen in early October, the number of suspected and confirmed cases has ballooned.

On Thursday (October 27th), the WHO in Yemen reported 51 confirmed cases of cholera in nine governorates, with more than 1,180 suspected cases, according to the office of Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General.

There are delays in confirming the suspected cases of cholera since there are only two labs in the country, in Sanaa and Aden, the spokesman said.

Yemen's Ministry of Public Health and Population has confirmed six deaths related to cholera through lab testing in Sanaa, Aden and Ibb, he added.

The WHO estimates 7.6 million people are living in affected and at risk areas, with the internally displaced population, about three million people, particularly vulnerable to the outbreak.

Urgent appeal for funds

In light of the rapid spread of the disease, the WHO has appealed for $22 million in urgent financial support to prevent the spread of cholera in Yemen.

These funds will target about four million people at risk of contracting cholera by strengthening the epidemiological monitoring system, providing access to health care services, supporting laboratories and raising awareness about the disease.

As a result of the ongoing conflict, two-thirds of Yemenis do not have access to clean water and sanitation services, especially in cities, further increasing their risk of contracting cholera, the WHO said.

There have been laboratory-confirmed cases of cholera in Sanaa, Aden, al-Bayda, Lahj, Hodeida, Taiz, Hajjah and Ibb, according to Dr. Abdul-Hakim al-Kahlani, director of the epidemiological monitoring system at the Ministry of Public Health and Population.

The ministry on Tuesday (October 25th) hosted a meeting to discuss how to contain the outbreak, he told Al-Mashareq.

Representatives from the ministries of Water and Environment, Media, Endowments and Religious Guidance and Education gathered to assess the situation with representatives from WHO and UNICEF, al-Kahlani said.

Humanitarian partners have been working to provide people with water supplies in the affected areas and improve water infrastructure, the UN said.

"Ministry of Water field teams are disinfecting drinking water wells with chlorine and also drinking water at sites where cases of infection have been discovered," al-Kahlani said.

Raising awareness

A plan is now in place to contain the spread of cholera by raising public awareness about its dangers and how to prevent it, al-Kahlani said.

An awareness-raising campaign will be conducted via the media, mosque preachers, SMS messaging, health education vehicles and in schools, he said.

This campaign will stress the importance of hygiene and access to clean drinking water, he said.

The WHO and UNICEF have provided laboratory services and treatments, he noted, as well as offering specialised training for doctors at al-Sabeen Hospital in Sanaa and medical centres and hospitals in various provinces.

"Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are more susceptible to contracting the disease due to the difficult living conditions in tents, schools [used as shelters] and uninhabitable rental apartments because of the lack of access to clean drinking water and adequate health care services," he said.

In Sanaa, 12 confirmed cases "involved an entire family that lives in a low-income neighbourhood", said Dr. Adel al-Elmani, controller of epidemiological monitoring of cholera at al-Sabeen Hospital for Motherhood and Childhood.

"Cholera is an acute disease that causes acute diarrhea that may lead to the patient’s death in a matter of hours if it is not detected and confirmed by laboratory tests and treated," Ministry of Public Health spokesman Dr. Tamim al-Shami told Al-Mashareq.

Most diagnosed cases are mild to moderate in severity, he said, noting that cholera is transmitted through bacteria in human feces and contaminated water.

Al-Shami called on donors to respond to the appeals of international organisations working in the health field, pointing to "a severe shortage of medical supplies" in Yemen.

He also called for an end to the current war, "to save Yemen from the dangers to health and lives that continually exacerbate the suffering of Yemenis".

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