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Yemen is in the grip of a runaway cholera epidemic that is killing one person nearly every hour and if not contained will threaten the lives of thousands of people in the coming months, Oxfam said today. The agency is calling for a massive aid effort and an immediate ceasefire to allow health and aid workers to tackle the outbreak.
According to the World Health Organization, in the five weeks between 27 April and 3 June some 676 people died of cholera and more than 86,000 people were suspected of having the disease. Last week the rate jumped to 2,777 suspected cases a day - up from the 2,529 a day recorded the previous week. Given Yemen’s neglected medical reporting system and the widespread nature of the epidemic these official figures are likely to be under reporting the full scale of the crisis.
In the coming months there could be up to 150,000 cases of cholera, with some predictions putting the estimate as high as 300,000 cases.
The cholera crisis comes on top of two years of brutal war which have decimated the health, water and sanitation systems, severely restricted the essential imports the country is dependent upon and left millions of people one step away from famine.
Sajjad Mohammed Sajid, Oxfam's Yemen Country Director, said: “Yemen is on the edge of an abyss. Lives hang in the balance. Two years of war have plunged the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and put Yemen at risk of famine. Now it is at the mercy of a deadly and rapidly spreading cholera epidemic. Cholera is simple to treat and prevent but while the fighting continues the task is made doubly difficult. A massive aid effort is needed now. The backers of this war in Western and Middle Eastern capitals need to put pressure on parties to the fighting to agree a ceasefire to allow public health and aid workers to get on with the task.”
Oxfam said that the outbreak is set to be one of the worst this century unless there is a massive and immediate effort to bring it under control. Oxfam is calling on rich countries and international organizations to generously deliver on promises of $1.2 billion of aid they made in Geneva in April.
Money, essential supplies and technical support are needed to strengthen Yemen's embattled health, water and sanitation services. Health workers and water engineers have not been paid for months while hospitals, health centers and public water systems have been destroyed and starved of key items, such as medical supplies, chlorine and fuel. Even basic supplies such as intravenous fluids, oral rehydration salts and soap are urgently needed to enable an effective, speedy response - some of which will have to be flown into the country. Communities also need to be supported in their efforts to prevent the disease spreading and quickly treat people showing the first signs of infection.
Running an effective nationwide cholera response cannot succeed while the country is at war and Oxfam is calling on all parties to the fighting to agree a ‘cholera ceasefire’ to allow health and aid workers to get on with the task.
Notes to editors
1. Cholera is easily prevented with simple and affordable efforts at home and in the community, such as disinfection of water with chlorine, safe collection and storage of water, washing hands with soap, and understanding the myths and behaviours associated with cholera. When people suspect they have the symptoms they can drink a mix of salt and sugar to rehydrate them while they make their way to the medical center.
2. Oxfam has already reached more than 100,000 people with our work to control and prevent cholera though the chlorination of water, working with affected communities to stop the spread of the epidemic as well as the distribution of hygiene materials such as soap for hand washing and water containers to ensure access to safe water. We have been training Community Hygiene Volunteers to support water authorities in conducting the chlorination; are supplying oral rehydration sachets to ensure that people can quickly rehydrate when suffering from signs and symptoms of cholera; continue our work to improve access to water and improved sanitation; and we are conducting a health promotion campaign to raise awareness about the measures individuals can take at the household level to prevent and treat cholera.