Doctor checking vitals of a non-contagious women with Cholera in Al Sab’een Hospital, Yemen
At the Al Sab’een Hospital in Sana'a, Yemen, a doctor checks on a girl suffering from cholera. © UNICEF/Fuad

A Cholera Outbreak in War Torn Yemen Just Crossed a Major Threshold


Data from the World Health Organization

Cholera is spreading like wildfire in Yemen. The epidemic began in October with 15 reported cases. As of last week, there were more than 100,000, with thousands of new cases each day.

Now, in addition to an unrelenting war and a looming famine, Yemenis face yet another deadly threat.

Cholera is a water borne disease. It is spread often through drinking water tainted with fecal matter. It kills through diarrhea and dehydration — but is relatively easy to treat by administering low cost oral rehydration salts. The problem in Yemen’s case is that after three years of war the medical infrastructure of the country is nearly all broken. There are few hospitals in which to seek treatment. Few medical workers left to administer IVs, and movement across the country is seriously hindered by the ongoing war. Medicines are in short supply–and the humanitarian community is already stretched to its capacity.

Preventing the spread of cholera –that is stopping the epidemic —  requires access to clean water and sanitation, much of the infrastructure of which did not exist before the war or was destroyed by it.

This is leading to a completely avoidable situation: a cholera epidemic spreading unrestrained. Already nearly 1,000 people have been killed. That number will almost certainly rise sharply in the coming weeks. UNICEF says some 3,000 to 5,000 new cases are being added daily.

Yemen was already the poorest country in the region before the war. Now, donors say they need  $66 million to curb this epidemic, but so far are far short of that funding. A humanitarian pause between the (US-backed) Saudi-led forces and the rebel groups in the country could go a very long way to improving the situation, but there has not been such a pause in the last several months. For now, all signs point to a massive cholera outbreak.

The last major cholera outbreak was in Haiti in 2010, which occurred after much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed by the earthquake.  Nearly 800,000 people were sickened and nearly 10,000 people killed.

This outbreak is shaping up to be at least as bad, if not worse because ongoing fighting us undermining efforts to stop it.