Conflict & Justice

Thousands in Yemen get sick in an entirely preventable cholera outbreak

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

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On Oct. 11, 2016, a girl lies on a bed at a hospital in Sanaa where she is receiving treatment for cholera. The May 2017 outbreak is more widespread.

Credit:

Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

Cholera is spreading rapidly across Yemen just ahead of President Donald Trump's trip to its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Aid groups say Yemen's medical system, ruined by the war, needs a break from the fighting that Saudi Arabia — and the United States — have enabled.

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In April, cholera was just one of many infectious diseases doctors were treating in parts of northern Yemen. Then it began to spread.

"We had seen that first day, four cases arriving in our hospital. And then the next day, four cases. But the third day — 25," says Ghassan Abu Chaar, head of the medical mission in Yemen for Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). "And since then, the numbers have been increasing."

By May 9, the World Health Organization said that 2,301 cases of cholera had been recorded in the current outbreak, which began on April 27. By Friday, May 19, the WHO estimated that 23,400 people had become infected. The number of infections increased tenfold in the space of ten days.

Yemen could have as many as 300,000 cases of cholera within six months, the WHO's Nevio Zagaria told reporters on Friday.

Nearly 250 people have died from cholera in Yemen in the current outbreak.

According to Marie-Claire Feghali of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the crisis looks worst in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, where hospitals are unable to keep pace with new patients.

"Up to four people share one hospital bed because there [is] no place to accommodate them," she says. 

Feghali reports that this week, some patients, unable to receive treatment even in packed hospital corridors, had to be treated outside. Some patients were put on IV drips while seated in parked cars. “This is how bad the situation is now," she says. 

Meanwhile, residents of Yemen's capital city are frightened.

"Yes of course, I'm really scared, I'm freaking out," says Rabee Odah. The 25-year-old English teacher left the capital to avoid infection, choosing to stay in his family's village, Alahjer. But even in rural Yemen, cholera is present. 

"In my village, I have heard one woman got the virus. She is pregnant," Odah says. "But today, her condition stabilized."

The World Health Organization says that cholera cases are being reported all across Yemen. Suha Almujahed, a young humanitarian worker, says people have been sick with cholera in her city, Taiz, in central Yemen. But it's nothing like what's going on in the capital.

"I went to Sanaa last week, and I was totally scared to eat anything from the street," she says. "My mother kept on calling me every day to warn me not to eat anything from restaurants. Even here in Taiz, we avoid eating anything from outside, and we clean vegetables and fruits in an exaggerated way."

The first photo reads, "Cholera sickness is an American gift from Trump before he visits Saudi Arabia."