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Contaminated water supplies, trash build-up aggravate Yemen's cholera epidemic

Photographer: Yahya Arhab


Contaminated water supplies used in farming and at home as well poor sanitation brought about by a buildup of garbage on the streets of Yemen's capital are feeding the cholera outbreak in the war-torn country, a medical source told epa-efe. Doctor Amal Al Surhi, who leads an epidemiological specialist team in the Sana’a area, spoke to epa-efe alongside a mother of three, who lost her baby son earlier in the month in an epidemic that the World Health Organization described as one of the worst outbreaks in recent history. According to Al Surhi, a barely functioning sewage treatment plant in the north of the city was one of the main reasons for the spread of cholera. 'Now it pumps wastewater to agricultural areas nearby where about 35 percent of the vegetables are available to the capital’s population,' Dr. Al Surhi said.

The doctor said contaminated water sold to residents from tankers as well as an accumulation of trash in the streets were contributing to the spread of the disease. 'I have asked the municipal services to lift garbage piles, but they say there are no salaries for cleaners and a lack of operation budget for municipal vehicles due to the intensifying war,' she said. Children are particularly vulnerable to the disease, with under five-year-olds representing 30.5 percent of the total suspected cases, according to WHO figures.

Seven-month-old Taha Abdullah Luft died on 11 October 2018 after being taken to a clinic a week before with diarrhea, a symptom a doctor attributed to him getting his first tooth. But after the baby's health worsened, his father took him to a hospital where it was established he had cholera. He died three hours later. Samples from the family’s water tank, replenished with water bought from tanks on the streets, were taken to a lab by Al-Surhi's team, which found their supply was contaminated by cholera, Taha’s mother Fatima said. Ali al-Ashmouri, a father of twin babies born in May 2018 who both died of cholera, told epa-efe his wife had not been able to reach a healthcare center due to a lack of money when two-month-old Hamza first started showing symptoms. 'Money is no longer available to all because of the war. It’s a very difficult situation,' he said. When Lamia got sick after Hamza’s death, Al-Ashmouri managed to borrow some money from friends so he could get her to a hospital quickly, but she died hours after being diagnosed. In a bid to stop the spread of the disease, the WHO and UNICEF were able to immunize 306,000 people in Hudaydah and Ibb governorates during a pause in fighting earlier in October 2018. 'The success of this vaccination campaign shows what we can collectively achieve for children and families in Yemen when the fighting stops and humanitarian access opens up,' UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said in a statement. 'Yet the reality is that this is a quick fix. Only a comprehensive political resolution to the conflict can secure the wellbeing of children across the country over the long term.'

Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Mghani, a consultant pediatrician at Al-Thawra Hospital in Sana’a, told epa-efe he was needed at a UNICEF-funded cholera treatment center owing to the growing number of cases. The center relies on five doctors and 11 nurses and receives about 80 suspected cholera cases every day, of which between 40-50 patients are diagnosed, he said. 'What we can provide patients are intravenous fluids and oral re-hydration salts, provided by international aid groups such as the World Health Organization and the UNICEF, to compensate for the fluids and salts lost by the patients due to severe watery diarrhea,' the doctor said. According to the WHO, there have been over 1.2 million suspected cholera cases and 2,515 associated deaths in Yemen since April 2017. Yemen has been locked in a political and military crisis since the popular regional uprisings of 2011, with the Houthis taking control of the capital Sana'a in September 2014, expelling President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia.