Yemen is in the grip of a runaway cholera epidemic that is killing one person nearly every hour and if not contained will threaten the lives of thousands of people in the coming months, Oxfam said today.
The humanitarian organisation is calling for a massive aid effort and an immediate ceasefire to allow health and aid workers to tackle the outbreak.
According to the World Health Organisation, in the five weeks between 27 April and 3 June, around 676 people died of cholera and more than 86,000 were suspected of having the disease.
Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director Sajjad Mohammed Sajid said the cholera crisis came on top of two years of brutal war that had decimated the health, water and sanitation systems, severely restricted the essential imports the country was dependent upon and left millions of people one step away from famine.
“Yemen is on the edge of an abyss. Lives hang in the balance. Two years of war has plunged the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and at risk of famine. Now it is at the mercy of a deadly and rapidly spreading cholera epidemic,” he said.
“Cholera is simple to treat and prevent but while the fighting continues the task is made doubly difficult. A massive aid effort is needed now. Those backers of this war in Western and Middle Eastern capitals need to put pressure on parties to the fighting to agree a ceasefire to allow public health and aid workers to get on with the task.”
Oxfam said that the outbreak was set to be one of the worst this century if there was not a massive and immediate effort to bring it under control. It is calling on rich countries and international agencies to generously deliver on promises of US $1.2bn of aid they made last month.
Last week, the number of suspected cases reported each day jumped to 2,777. Given Yemen’s neglected medical reporting system and the widespread nature of the epidemic, these official figures are likely to be under-reporting the full scale of the crisis.
In the coming months there could be up to 150,000 cases of cholera, with some predictions as high as 300,000 cases.
Money, essential supplies and technical support are needed to strengthen Yemen’s embattled health, water and sanitation services. Health workers and water engineers have not been paid for months while hospitals, health centres and public water systems have been destroyed and starved of key items, such as medical supplies, chlorine and fuel. Even basic supplies such as intravenous fluids, oral rehydration salts and soap are urgently needed to enable an effective, speedy response – some of which will have to be flown into the country.
Communities also need to be supported with their efforts to prevent the disease spreading and quickly treat people showing the first signs of infection.
Running an effective nationwide cholera response cannot succeed while the country is at war and Oxfam is calling on all parties to the fighting to agree a ‘cholera ceasefire’ to allow health and aid workers to get on with the task.
Oxfam Australia Humanitarian Policy Advisor Dr Nicole Bieske said the $10 million of humanitarian funding the Australian Government provided for Yemen in late April was a welcome start, but the government needed to continue to closely monitor the crisis and be prepared to commit additional funding this year.
“Yemen’s people, living in the Middle East’s poorest country, are facing a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions and the emergency response continues to be critically under-funded,” Dr Bieske said.
“Australia should use all diplomatic channels at its disposal to push the parties to the conflict to agree on an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and to enable the safe and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
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Donations to support Oxfam’s emergency responses in Yemen and around the world can be made online at oxfam.org.au/donate or by calling 1800 034 034.
Notes to editors:
Cholera is easily prevented with simple and affordable efforts at home and in the community, such as disinfection of water with chlorine, safe collection and storage of water, washing hands with soap, and understanding the myths, behaviours associated with cholera. When people suspect they have the symptoms they can drink a mix salt and sugar to rehydrate them while they make their way to the medical centre.
Oxfam has delivered programs on water, sanitation and hygiene in four governorates since July 2015, which help prevent the spread of cholera. The delivery of clean water, the cleaning and chlorination of water sources along with the building of latrine toilets and the organisation of hygiene awareness sessions have benefited 920,000 people, including 380,000 children.
Photos and stories from Yemen are also available here.
Oxfam has reached more than a million people in eight governorates of Yemen with water and sanitation services, cash assistance, food vouchers and other essential aid since July 2015.