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A catastrophic cholera crisis threatens Yemen

By Oxfam
A boy waits in line for water in Taiz city, Yemen. While aid is entering the city, it has not been enough to meet the increasing needs of people. Abdulnasser Al-Sedek/Oxfam

Yemen’s man-made catastrophe is forcing people to make stark live or die choices.

Yemenis, already on the tipping point after more than two years of war, are now being forced to choose between treating cholera and putting food on the table.

Oxfam has spoken to many families who have to rely on selling their personal belongings and going into debt to buy food and pay for cholera treatment. Seeking medical treatment is often the last resort, and many only do so when it is already too late. Our new report shows that millions of people are struggling to buy enough to eat and those who are then hit by cholera are only able to afford the costs of transportation, medicine, and doctor’s fees by further reducing the amount of food they buy.

“Each day that passes brings more suffering to the unbearable lives of the Yemeni people,” said Shane Stevenson, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen. “The world is shamefully failing them. A new disaster after another is leading to a man-made catastrophe in Yemen and thousands of people face stark live or die choices every day. What more needs to happen in Yemen for the international community to properly respond?”

Since March 2015, the war has devastated the country, killing over 5,000 civilians, pushing seven million towards starvation and leaving nearly half a million children malnourished. It has led to the world’s worst outbreak of cholera recorded in a single year, with a staggering half a million suspected cases since April. Nearly 2,000 people have died of suspected cholera which has affected all but one governorate in Yemen.

While the number of new cases has slowed slightly, the disease is still spreading and threatening thousands of people who don’t have clean water or healthcare and the current rainy season is likely to aggravate the spread of cholera. In addition, the overall disastrous situation means a high risk of other diseases breaking out, as a recent increase in meningitis cases shows.

Several factors, resulting directly from the effects of war, drove the spread of cholera. In particular, the prolonged period of hunger and malnutrition has made people vulnerable to disease.

Salaries in the public sector have not been paid for nearly a year, and people’s ability in general to make a living has collapsed as the economy has been decimated.

Mohammad Ahmed, a 33-year-old farmer who was displaced by the conflict from Sa’adah, says he has to take his mother to the hospital every three months as she suffers from a heart condition. He had to sell his wife’s jewelry and his Jambia (a popular Yemeni dagger and belt), and people gave him some money out of sympathy. He is now without money for his mother’s next visit and he has no idea where he’ll get it from since he already sold everything he owns. Another family had to fork out about 15,000 Yemeni riyals, a fortune for many families, to travel to the nearest cholera treatment center.

Up to 30,000 health workers have not been paid or paid only partially and the conflict resulted in the devastation of the health sector, with only 45 percent of the health facilities fully functional, which clearly debilitated the ability to properly respond to the cholera outbreak.

“It is now or never the time to bring back parties to the negotiations table and to fully fund the humanitarian response,” said Stevenson. “Waiting any longer will lead to more death and devastation of which the world will be shamefully complicit.”

Oxfam is on the ground working to prevent the further spread of cholera. We are scaling up water, sanitation, and hygiene activities across the country, targeting internally displaced people and host communities living in camps, urban, and rural areas. We have reached more than 400,000 people in seven regions of Yemen since early May.


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