Families in despair as cholera outbreak spreads across Yemen

Thousands of cases of acute suspected cholera are reported every day all over the country. Half of them are children

By Rajat Madhok
Children of Hemiar Mohammed.
UNICEF Yemen/2017/Alzekri
18 July 2017

ALHESN, Sana’a, Yemen, 18 July 2017 – A whirl of dust and wind sweeps through Alhesn, a village perched atop Sana’a’s highest hill. A young girl and her little brother slowly climb up the steep stony path leading to the village, carrying half-filled jerry cans of water. Nearby, a shepherd herds his cattle through the walled entrance of this hamlet, which is home to 70 families.

There is an eerie silence in the village. Children play with broken toys on debris that was once someone’s home. They run around but their voices are low. Stone and rubble are strewn everywhere, along with plastic bags and garbage.

Two years ago, a massive explosion on an adjoining hill killed many in this village, including children. Within seconds, homes were destroyed and lives shattered. “Rocks flew at us from everywhere, I lost my 11-year-old brother on the spot,” says a young English teacher. The memory of that tragic day is still fresh in the minds of the people of Alhesn.

But now the village is grappling with yet another crisis. This time it is a widespread cholera outbreak, with more than 300,000 people across the country affected by acute watery diarrhoea/suspected cholera. Acute watery diarrhoea can be caused by a bacteria called vibrio cholera or other infections and may result in severe dehydration leading to death unless treated quickly and properly.

A deadly cholera outbreak is sweeping across Yemen. Watch Hemiar tell the story of his family's struggle.

Across the village, 35-year-old Hemiar Ahmad Mohammed lives in a stone house with his wife Fauzia and their nine children. The youngest is one month old.

Last week, one of his sons was rushed to the hospital with acute watery diarrhoea. Soon after, Fauzia’s life was hanging by a thread.

She was admitted to the intensive care unit at the Al Thawra, one of the few partially functioning hospitals in Sana’a. Her kidneys stopped functioning after a serious attack of suspected cholera.

“I feel like an orphan. I don’t know what to do,” Hemiar said as he gently stroked his youngest child who was wrapped in a blanket. The other children sat by their father’s side, all of them missing their mother.

Hemiar’s story is similar to that of thousands of others as the outbreak spreads rapidly across Yemen. Thousands of cases of acute watery diarrhoea/suspected cholera are being reported every day from all corners of the country. Half of them children. In two-and-a-half months since the upsurge was announced, more than 1,700 people have died.

This health crisis is caused by two years of heavy conflict. Collapsing health, water and sanitation systems have cut off 14.5 million people from regular access to safe water and sanitation, increasing the ability of diseases to spread. At the same time, there is a shortage of doctors and nursing staff to help treat and care for those affected. There are no longer any doctors present in 49 of the country’s 333 districts. Some have fled the country and those who have stayed have not been paid for almost a year.

UNICEF Yemen/2017/Alzekri

Hemiar's daughter waits for her mother to return home after treatment. Fauzia’s condition improved dramatically and she was recently discharged from the hospital.

With collapsing basic services, garbage is strewn on the streets, stagnant water collects in puddles, while people are forced to depend on untreated and often contaminated water sources for their daily needs. When they fall sick, there are fewer hospital to go to.

UNICEF is responding by urgently bringing in medicines and other supplies by air and sea and distributing them across medical facilities in the country. WHO and UNICEF are supporting 626 diarrhoea treatment centres and oral rehydration therapy corners across the nation in the most affected districts, with a plan to further scale up to a total of 1,156 facilities. Patients suffering from acute watery diarrhoea are referred to treatment centres and hospitals for specialized care.

UNICEF is also working to make local environments safer and more hygienic through its sanitation and hygiene programmes. Cholera and other water borne diseases spread faster when sanitation and hygiene systems break down. So far, the children’s agency has reached around four million people with water and sanitation services which include disinfecting water sources, distribution of chlorination tablets at homes and support to the rehabilitation of water supply systems and waste water plants. In addition, UNICEF is supporting some 16,000 community mobilizers, who are going house-to-house to provide families with information about how to protect themselves by cleaning and storing drinking water, good hygiene and hand washing, keeping food safe and on how to handle a sick family member.   

Back at Hemiar’s home, the family recently received good news – Fauzia’s condition improved dramatically with treatment, and she has been discharged from the hospital. She is now happily reunited with her children and husband, but as long as the conflict continues, new challenges will always lie ahead.