A race against time: how Oxfam is fighting cholera in Yemen

A woman and children gather safe drinking water from the tap Oxfam has installed in Huth IDP camp. Photo: Kate Wiggans/Oxfam
A woman and children gather safe drinking water from the tap Oxfam has installed in Huth IDP camp. Photo: Kate Wiggans/Oxfam

Two and a half years of war have plunged Yemen into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and put the country at risk of famine. Now it is at the mercy of a deadly and rapidly spreading cholera epidemic that became the world's worst ever recorded outbreak. If not contained, and at current rates of increase, there could be over 1 million suspected cases by the end of 2017.

The world's worst cholera outbreak

In just five months Yemen’s cholera epidemic has spread to nearly every corner of the war-ravaged country. It is estimated that over 849,000 people in Yemen are suffering from cholera or acute watery diarrhea. Over 2,100 people have died - a quarter of them children.

Efforts to beat cholera are massively undermined by the war, which has decimated the health, water and sanitation systems. Waste is piling up on the streets and in the settlements of displaced people. Medical materials are in chronically short supply and only 45 per cent of health facilities are functioning.  An estimated 20.7 million people now require humanitarian assistance including food, safe drinking water and sanitation.

Oxfam team disinfecting a water source to respond to the cholera outbreak. Sharab Al-Rona district, Taiz governorate. Photo: Khaled Aljunaid/Oxfam

What is cholera?

Cholera is a disease caused by a bacterial infection of the intestine, characterized by acute, watery diarrhea (AWD) and vomiting. If sick people are not promptly and adequately treated, the loss of large amounts of fluid and salts can lead to severe dehydration and death within hours. Because the incubation period is very short (two hours to five days), the number of cases can rise very rapidly.

Cholera is extremely contagious. It is usually transmitted through fecally contaminated water, hands or food. The greatest risk occurs in over-populated communities, displaced populations and refugee settings, where poor sanitation, unsafe drinking water and food, and increased person-to-person contact allow the disease to spread more easily.

Oxfam’s cholera response: five key actions to stop the spread

Since the beginning of the outbreak, Oxfam has worked to contain the disease by focusing its response on improving access to safe and clean water and promoting good hygiene practices:

  1. We repair water supplies and carry out disinfection of water storage and sources using chlorine that helps kill or reduce the bacteria
  2. We provide households with water purification equipment and distribute hygiene materials such as soap for hand washing, buckets and safe water containers
  3. We construct latrines and provide solid waste management facilities for the safe disposal of excreta to prevent it coming into contact with other people
  4. We train community volunteers to spread hygiene messages for cholera prevention and treatment, including hand washing and cleaning of water storage facilities
  5. We conduct public health campaigns to raise awareness about the measures individuals can take at the household level to prevent and treat cholera

You can help

We have already provided water and sanitation assistance to more than 1.4 million people in nine governorates. Cholera is simple to treat and prevent, but while the fighting continues the task is made doubly difficult.

The outbreak is set to be one of the worst this century unless there is a massive and immediate aid effort to bring it under control. You can help.