More than 300,000 people in Yemen are believed to be infected with cholera, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced Monday, signaling a troubling milestone in the nation’s growing epidemic, which began in October. In the last ten weeks, cholera has claimed the lives of more than 1,600 people in Yemen, the ICRC said. On Sunday, the organization’s regional director for the Middle East, Robert Mardini, reported that the nation is witnessing around 7,000 new cases of cholera each day. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that half of these cases belong to children.
In June, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen, Sajjad Mohamed Sajid, called for a “massive aid effort” to address the epidemic, which by then was already killing one person every hour. By the end of the month, UNICEF and the World Bank responded to increased demand, delivering enough medical and water purification supplies to treat 10,000 people. While cholera is relatively simple to treat in most parts of the world, death can occur within hours if severely ill patients are left untreated.
“We are in a race against time,” UNICEF’s Deputy Representative in Yemen, Sherin Varkey, said at the end of June. “Our teams are working with partners not only to provide treatment to the sick and raise awareness among communities, but also to rapidly replenish and distribute supplies and medicines.” While the outbreak has reached 22 out of 23 provinces in Yemen, around half of cholera cases have been identified in just four provinces: Sanaa, Hudaydah, Hajja, and Amran. On June 24, WHO declared Yemen’s epidemic “the worst cholera outbreak in the world.” Since then, around 100,000 new cases have been diagnosed.
For the most part, the state of Yemen’s epidemic can be attributed to its ongoing civil war. Since March 2015, the nation has witnessed a devastating conflict between the Saudi-backed government of its current president, Abdrabbuh Mansour, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels allied with his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In addition to taking the lives of more than 10,000 people and displacing millions, the war has toppled much of Yemen’s infrastructure. Today, more than half of the nation’s health facilities have been shut down and around 14.5 million people have been denied regular access to clean water and sanitation. The destruction of the country’s health, water, and sanitation systems has served to exacerbate the spread of cholera, which is transmitted through contaminated food and water.
Yemen’s precarious financial situation has only made matters worse. The country, now the poorest in the Arab world, has stopped paying its sanitation workers, resulting in septic backups and piles of garbage that contaminate the nation’s wells—a main source of drinking water. In April, heavy rains washed mounds of waste into the nation’s water sources, while warm weather encouraged the spread of cholera pathogens. The government has also failed to pay around 30,000 of its health workers for the last ten months, prompting the UN to offer “incentive payments” to get workers involved in medical treatment and prevention.
Even with organizations like UNICEF providing medical assistance, Yemen has struggled to properly allocate its humanitarian aid. On the one hand, humanitarian organizations face a number of logistical obstacles, such as a Saudi-led blockade on relief supplies. On the other, locals report that life-saving goods are occasionally stolen and sold on the black market. According to Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, $1.1 billion in aid set aside by donor governments including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany, the U.S., and the UK has yet to be distributed in the region.
At a Thursday news conference in Sanaa, McGoldrick also told reporters that vital resources are being diverted away from those requiring food assistance to address the cholera epidemic. WHO reports that millions of people in Yemen are on the brink of famine, while around 17 million don’t know where their next meal will come from. Without the proper food and nutrition, Yemen’s population is even more vulnerable to diseases like cholera. “If we don’t get these resources replaced, then using those resources for cholera will mean that food insecurity will suffer,” McGoldrick said. “We’re trying to do our best,” he added, “but it’s very much beyond what we can cope with.”