More than one million children are threatened by Yemen’s deadly cholera outbreak, Save the Children said Wednesday, warning that the war-ravaged country is trapped in a “brutal cycle of starvation and sickness”.
The charity said new data showed more than one million malnourished children under age five were living in cholera hotspots, and that the ongoing conflict between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition was aggravating the crisis and thwarting efforts to provide basic care.
In the past four months, more than 425,000 people have been infected and almost 1,900 have died, a third of them aged under 15, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The number of infections is now the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year, even exceeding Haiti’s deadly outbreak in 2011.
A bacterial infection spread by water containing contaminated faeces, cholera is relatively easy to cure but can kill within hours if untreated. Malnourished children are at least three times more likely to die because their immune systems are weakened and they are less able to fight off the disease.
“The tragedy is, both malnutrition and cholera are easily treatable if you have access to basic healthcare,” said Tamer Kirolos, who heads Save the Children’s operations in Yemen. “But hospitals and clinics have been destroyed, government health workers haven’t been paid for almost a year, and the delivery of vital aid is being obstructed.”
Disease and starvation
Save the Children currently operates 14 cholera treatment centres and more than 90 rehydration units across the country. It said it is scaling up its response and sending more health experts to the areas worst-hit by the epidemic.
The Al Hali district, in the western Hodeidah governorate, is one such area. It has the country’s highest number of suspected cholera cases. It also has an estimated 31,000 children in need of treatment for acute malnutrition, or more than a quarter of children under the age of five.
The UK-based charity warned that diarrhoeal diseases like cholera are themselves a leading cause of malnutrition, raising fears that even if children survive the outbreak they could be pushed further towards starvation.
“After two years of armed conflict, children are trapped in a brutal cycle of starvation and sickness,” Kirolos said, referring to the gruesome war that has destroyed Yemen’s infrastructure and is hampering the relief effort. “It’s simply unacceptable. Children must not pay for this conflict with their lives.”
A deadly stalemate
Yemen, which lies on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has been racked by war since September 2014, when Houthi Shiite rebels swept into the capital, Sanaa, and overthrew President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The fighting escalated in March 2015 when a coalition led by Saudi Arabia – and backed by the United States – began a campaign against Houthi forces in a bid to restore Hadi’s government. Since then, the Iranian-backed Houthis have been dislodged from most of the south, but remain in control of Sanaa and much of the north.
UN officials say the conflict has already killed over 10,000 people and displaced millions more, gutting the country’s health, water and sanitation systems. The Saudi-led coalition, in particular, has been repeatedly criticized for targeting civilians and non-military infrastructure.
Save the Children has documented 23 cases in which the coalition has bombed schools and hospitals, killing or maiming children. And amid all the misery, neither side appears close to claiming victory.
‘Racing towards the end of a cliff’
With “no end in sight” to the war, the UN said last week it was revising its humanitarian assessment for Yemen. It now calculates that 70 percent of the country’s 27 million inhabitants need humanitarian aid, that 60 percent don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and that nearly 7 million are “close to slipping into a state of famine”.
Auke Lootsma, the UN development chief in Yemen, told reporters by video conference from Sanaa that the conflict had severely disrupted food deliveries in a country that imports 90 percent of its food. As a result of the fighting, airports are closed to commercial flights, seaports operate well below capacity, and many local importers are broke.
“The current food security crisis is a man-made disaster not only resulting from decades of poverty and under-investment, but also as a war tactic through economic strangulation,” said Lootsma. Furthermore, the drastic reduction in the purchasing power of ordinary Yemenis means that what little food does make it into the country “is financially out of reach for many of the poor families”.
The UN official said international donors needed to step up their financial contributions but that stopping the war remained the utmost priority for Yemen, which he likened to “a bus racing towards the end of a cliff”. He added: “I think we can still stop this bus and turn it around before it goes over the cliff, but time is really running out.”