Millions of Yemeni children facing triple threat of cholera, measles and malnutrition

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Health system ravaged by war has collapsed, unable to cope with contagious diseases

Millions of Yemeni children are at risk from a triple threat of malnutrition which has left their immune systems low, a spiralling cholera epidemic, and a new outbreak of the highly infectious measles virus.

The warning comes as fighting between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Houthi opposition group has raged all week, since a 72-hour ceasefire ended and failed to secure lasting peace.

At least 1.5 million children are already acutely malnourished and millions more are ‘food insecure’, going to bed hungry every night. This is the result of 19-months of hostilities during which imports of essential supplies including food, fuel and medicine have been severely restricted; humanitarian access obstructed; and hospitals and other vital civilian facilities bombed.

Of the 7.6 million people declared to be ‘at risk’ of cholera, approximately half are assumed to be children – around 3.8 million.

One girl named Yasmine, seven, was treated for cholera in al-Sabeen Children’s Hospital in the capital city Sana’a, alongside her sister and triplet brothers.

Her father Bashir, 38, said: “Their grandmother had symptoms and three days later, six of our children – three girls and three boys – were infected. They got severe diarrhea. Immediately, we went to the closest clinic in our area but the doctors could not accept the cases. My daughter Yasmine went into a coma, I was very scared. The doctor in the clinic suggested I take her and the other children to the hospital in Sana’a.”

Because al-Sabeen Hospital has run out of some supplies, like many hospitals in Yemen, staff have been forced to ask patients to buy their own medicines externally. When available, it is vastly overpriced.

Bashir said: “I called my cousin to lend me some money for the medicine, I got the money, but I didn't find the medicine. I kept driving all night to find potassium for oral intake. I found only one bottle while I need two bottles. So I gave it to my daughter Yasmine first who is in a seriously bad situation.” One bottle cost £15 (4,500 Yemeni Riyal).

The father spent most of the money he had been saving for years: “I had saved about 650,000 riyal (£2,120) but I spent it all now, I only have 8,000 riyal (£26) left. I own a minibus, it is in bad condition but I’m willing to sell it for my children.”

Dr Najat, who treated Yasmine, said: “Yasmine suffers from kidney failure owing to severe dehydration which stemmed from cholera, she needs intensive care.

“The situation is very bad here in the hospital, we are really facing a crisis. We are lacking medicines, equipment, doctors and staff salaries.”

Save the Children staff in Yemen have also recorded five cases of measles, a highly infectious airborne virus that spreads quickly amongst those who have not been vaccinated against it.

Dr Najat said: “Further to cholera cases, we received five cases from Sa’dah infected with measles. This is serious because it is a contagious disease and it might spread to Sana’a city.”

The doctor immediately referred the measles cases to the city’s main hospital, Al Thawra, to prevent the disease from spreading amongst his already weak cholera-infected child patients.

Edward Santiago, Save the Children’s Yemen Country Director, said: “The de facto blockade has starved Yemen of food, medicine and medical supplies, including some vaccines. Many health facilities have been damaged and 600 have been closed due to the conflict, leaving millions without very basic healthcare. The country’s health system is on its knees and is no fit state to deal with an infectious disease outbreak.”

Two thirds of Yemenis do not have access to clean water and sanitation services, especially those in cities, further increasing the risk of infection. The conflict has caused thousands of families to flee and camp on the outskirts of Sana’a where conditions are unsanitary and could see the rapid spread of cholera though contaminated food and water.

Save the Children is preparing to launch a three-month cholera prevention programme.

The charity is calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and for the importation and distribution of food, fuel and medicine to be scaled up urgently.


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Notes to editors
According to the Yemeni Ministry of Public Health, as of October 23 the number of confirmed cholera cases was 31 in Amanat Al Asimah (12), Aden (9), Lahj (1), Al Bayda (4), Sana’a (4) and Hajjah (1) governorates. According to preliminary reports from local authorities, 32 deaths related to Acute Watery Diarrhoea have been reported in Taiz (4), Hodaida (8), Aden (8), Lahj (8), Al Bayda (2) and Sana’a (2).

The WHO has assumed that IDPs (currently estimated 3.2 million) and 25% of the population in most affected areas, which totals 7.6 million, are at risk of cholera.

Save the Children recently reported under-resourced hospitals have run out of medicines and desperate parents are selling their belongings like jewellery and cars to afford them: