The Four Horsemen come to Yemen

There are children sprawled on the floor of wards, twisting and turning with discomfort upon their mattresses...
Published on
June 16, 2017
Two of the young patients receiving treatment for cholera. Children, and in particular malnourished children, are far more at risk of contracting cholera than adults. Photo: Moohialdin Alzekri UN065871

There are children sprawled on the floor of wards, twisting and turning with discomfort upon their mattresses.

Many are critically ill, being tended by their worried parents, but they can only wait.

A devastating cholera outbreak across Yemen has left hospitals and treatment centres struggling to cope. Patients are pouring into hospitals from all corners of the country, and doctors and nursing staff are already stretched beyond their capacities.

In Yemen, four children a day are now dying because of cholera.

Beds lined up in a paediatric ward hallway due to overcrowding at Al-Thawra Hospital. Photo: Rajat Madhok UN057349

“It’s a disgrace that in the 21st century, this is happening to boys and girls.”

Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s Regional Director, was recently in Yemen to oversee the organisations operations.

“At the triage in one of the few functioning hospitals I visited, I witnessed harrowing scenes of children who were barely alive — tiny babies weighing less than two kilos — fighting for their lives. I fear that some of them must have died overnight.

UNICEF Regional Director Geert Cappelaere checks on the condition of babies in incubators.

“The children I met barely made it on time to the hospital and got treatment. I asked the mothers and the caretakers what took them so long to make it to the hospital, many said they couldn’t afford the little money for transportation.”

It is a new and terrible cruelty for a country that is hurting horribly. Yemen was already suffering through one of the worst hunger crises the world had seen in decades. It was already a country wracked by civil war. Now, the scourge of cholera.

Famine, pestilence, war, and death. The Four Horsemen have come to Yemen.

Hospitals throughout Yemen are so overcrowded that patients are spilling out into the corridors. Photo: Moohialdin Alzekri UN065880

Over just three days in late May, the number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen rose by 10,000. Over 1,000 children have been reporting to health facilities every day. In just over a month, cholera has claimed the lives of at least 790 people. Around half of those affected are children.

Famine, pestilence, war, and death. The four horsemen have come to Yemen.

The number of suspected cholera cases is expected to reach 130,000 within the next two weeks. And children suffering from malnutrition are more likely than most to fall victim.

One-year-old Khawla was one of the lucky ones to make it to hospital. She was suffering from malnutrition, and battling a chest infection which was affecting her breathing.

One-year-old Khalwa is one of the many thousands of children admitted to hospital, and one of the millions suffering from malnutrition. Photo: Magd Farid UN57312

“At first it was diarrhoea. She became so light that I could carry her with one hand. Then she lost appetite. I got worried,”said her mother, Um Khawla.

Khalwa had been regularly sick ever since she was four months old, but for six months, her mother had somehow found the money to take her for regular check-ups at the hospital.

“Before the conflict, my husband had a job and his salary was adequate to meet our needs,” said Um Khawla.

Khalwa’s mother was able to find the money to bring her to hospital when she showed signs of illness. For many others, struggling in a broken economy, it is much harder. Photo: Magd Farid UN57312

“When everything collapsed after the fighting started, we tried to grow vegetables in our farm but that was not safe due to bombs and bullets. Now we are reduced to nothing.”

This impoverished Middle Eastern country is now teetering on the verge of total disaster.

One in three children — 2.2 million — and another one million pregnant women or new mothers are malnourished and in need of assistance.

“Water, sanitation and health systems have all but collapsed. 27 million Yemenis are staring at an unforgiving humanitarian catastrophe. The biggest victims of this man-made tragedy are Yemen’s most vulnerable population — its children,” said Dr. Meritxell Relaño, UNICEF’s Representative in Yemen.

Locals queue up to fill jerry cans with clean water from a UNICEF distribution point. Photo: UN057350/Algabal

With barely functional water treatment plants, sewage and uncollected garbage is piling up in the streets, and contaminating water supplies. Where there are safe water sources, rows of jerrycans stand in for people waiting to collect their water for the day.

Children push trolleys filled with as many containers as they can manage. It is a heavy load, but one that won’t make them sick.

Children bring their jerry cans to fill with water in Sana’a. For many families, this is the only way to ensure they have clean water. Photo: UN065893/Alzekri

Two-thirds of Yemen’s population have no access to safe drinking water. Half of the country’s health facilities aren’t working, and what remains of the country’s weakened health system is completely overwhelmed.

In response to the cholera outbreak, UNICEF has sent in three aircrafts carrying over 40 tonnes of lifesaving supplies to treat more than 50,000 patients.

“The service providers I met this morning are doing an incredible job responding to the cholera outbreak and working around the clock to prevent cholera from spreading further and killing more children,” said Mr Cappelaere. “But those health workers didn’t receive their salaries for more than seven months.”

A doctor checks on a girl suffering from cholera. Hospitals and health clinics in Yemen are being stretched to breaking point, and many medical workers haven’t been paid for months. Photo: Moohialdin Fuad UN066510

In response to the cholera outbreak, UNICEF has sent in three aircrafts carrying over 40 tonnes of lifesaving supplies to treat more than 50,000 patients.

Already, resources have been provided to treat almost 350,000 severely malnourished thousand children, and another quarter of a million children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers will receive basic healthcare services.

But the needs of Yemen’s people continue to increase, with medicines and other vital medical equipment in short supply.

“The international community needs to support long-term investments in social services like water and sanitation,” said Dr. Relaño. “Otherwise, deadly disease outbreaks will strike again and kill many more.”

This child is receiving treatment for cholera at Sab’een Hospital in Yemen. Photo: Moohialdin Alzekri UN065873

Words by Lachlan Forsyth, UNICEF NZ.

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