Yemen’s first-ever cholera vaccination campaign

As a crucial part of the effort to end the world's worst cholera epidemic, more than 270,000 were vaccinated

By Bismarck Swangin
A boy receives an oral cholera vaccine, Yemen
24 May 2018

ADEN, Yemen, 24 May 2018 – When two people died from suspected cholera in Salwah Abdullah’s neighbourhood last year, she was terrified her daughter, 20-year-old Selwan, would be next.

Selwan had started showing symptoms – vomiting and non-stop diarrhea – and her condition was deteriorating quickly, to the point where she couldn’t open her eyes.

“I went crazy when my daughter contracted cholera, as I remembered all those who got sick in my neighbourhood. I was so scared to lose my daughter – I would have given my own life to save her,” Salwah says, recalling that some other 15 people in the area were also suffering from symptoms in the suspected cholera outbreak.

Luckily, she remembered what community volunteers had taught her about treating the disease, and she immediately took her daughter to a local diarrhoea treatment centre.

“The world was collapsing around me,” Selwan remembers. But after four days spent in the treatment centre she pulled through.


First vaccination campaign at a critical time
A girl holds up a vaccination card, Yemen
Selwan, 20, shows her vaccination card after receiving the oral cholera vaccine.

Selwan’s story was a close call at a time when Yemen experienced the world’s worst cholera outbreak. More than 1 million people suffered from suspected cases since the civil conflict in the country began three years ago, causing over 2,200 deaths. Nearly half of the infections struck children.

The swift spread of the disease was one of the major fallouts of the country’s ongoing conflict, which had already destroyed the country’s health, water and sanitation systems, and caused alarmingly high rates of malnutrition.

To prevent a resurgence of the outbreak this year, UNICEF, WHO and health authorities in Yemen launched the first-ever cholera vaccination campaign from 6-15 May.

The campaign came at a crucial time during Yemen’s rainy season, when water is easily contaminated by overflowing sewage. This first phase of the campaign targeted high-risk districts that were identified as cholera ‘hot spots’. More than 270,000 people were vaccinated, and plans are currently under way to reach more high-risk districts across the country.

>> Read the latest Yemen situation report


A comprehensive plan of action

Running any vaccination campaign in Yemen is not easy. Millions have been displaced by violence, and most are unaware of the importance of vaccines.

UNICEF and partners also trained more than 600 volunteers to raise awareness about the effectiveness of the vaccine, emphasizing that it’s safe and free. Among the volunteers were traffic police, religious leaders and other community members who worked around the clock to reach their communities.

But vaccines are just one piece of the puzzle to ensure the prevention of cholera: Collective efforts to treat the sick and improve water and sanitation systems are also essential.

Across the country, water networks are being rehabilitated to provide better service to families and health facilities that will give over 5 million people improved access to safe water and sanitation. In many governorates, UNICEF is also supplying fuel and electricity to keep water treatment and pumping stations working.


A family leads a community effort

Salwah and her husband Maher were among the first to ensure their entire family got vaccinated. They also motivated their entire community to get the vaccine.

“Since my daughter’s life was saved, my husband, my two daughters and I actively engaged with the community during the campaign. It is our duty to be a part of protecting ourselves from the killer disease,” Salwah said.

For her part, Selwan took to social media to reach out to her colleagues at the University of Aden to get vaccinated. “I shared my story, how I was treated and saved,” Selwan said.

“I am dreaming of a Yemen free of diseases and epidemics, I dream of a country free of war, and a deserving life for us children and young people,” she says.


UNICEF and partners have stepped up cholera prevention and response activities including surveillance and case detection, community engagement and awareness, enhancing laboratory testing capacity, and training and deploying rapid response teams to affected areas.