Yemen in Focus: Hundreds die as swine flu spreads in Houthi-controlled areas

Yemen in Focus: Hundreds die as swine flu spreads in Houthi-controlled areas
This week we look at hundreds of deaths due to the spread of diseases, tit-for-tat disputes between the rebels and government, and more.
6 min read
02 January, 2020
Thousands have died due to a lack of access to healthcare [Getty]
More than 200 people have died of swine flu and dengue fever since October 2019, the country's rebel-led health ministry announced just as the year ended.

"A bout of fast-spreading swine flu had killed 94 people in October alone, while thousands of reported cases have overwhelmed health care facilities, already crippled by constant violence," said Mohammed al-Mansour, a senior Houthi health official.

Yet another outbreak of dengue fever has also swept across the country, killing 68 people, including 16 children under five so far this month, he added. 

The painful disease, which has already sprouted across much of Yemen in recent years, has re-emerged due to the deterioration of Yemen's health and sanitation systems.

The devastating death toll, which comes as Yemen struggled with more than four years of war, is likely to rise.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation reported a surge in cases of dengue fever – endemic in Yemen. Outbreaks follow seasonal patterns with the highest number of cases usually reported from April to August.

Sewage, rotting rubbish, and, even worse, rotting bodies, that have piled up on streets in parts of Yemen have become fertile breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry the dengue virus.

Sewage, rotting rubbish, and, even worse, rotting bodies, that have piled up on streets in parts of Yemen have become fertile breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry the dengue virus

A mosquito-borne viral infection gives symptoms of dengue fever that appear 3-14 days after infection. It causes a flu-like illness that can develop into a potential life-threatening condition, especially without proper supportive medical care.

Along with dengue fever and swine flu, the impoverished country has also suffered with severe cases of Diphtheria – an infectious and contagious disease that usually involves the nose, throat, and air passages, but may also infect the skin.

In September, the United Nations agencies for health and children launched a diphtheria vaccination campaign in war-torn Yemen targeting over 2.8 million children between the ages of six weeks and 15 years.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said over 4,000 Yemenis have got diphtheria since 2017 and more than 200 have died, also adding that preliminary data from the World Health Organization and UNICEF report indicates that over one million children have been vaccinated within the first five days of the campaign.

Rights groups and humanitarian agencies say the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is largely man-made, caused by the upheaval of war.

A report by the International Red Cross this year warned 24 million Yemenis, or 80 percent of the population, need humanitarian aid, while 16 million are living on the verge of famine.


Reports of the recent spread in diseases came as a dozen humanitarian organisations in war-torn southern Yemen suspended their operations following a string of targeted attacks, the United Nations said.

The suspension of aid work came after unknown assailants fired rocket-propelled grenades at three aid organisations in the southwestern province of Dhale over the weekend, according to the UN Humanitarian Office in Yemen, wounding a security guard and damaging several office buildings.

The bombings signalled "an alarming escalation in the risks faced by humanitarian workers" and halted the provision of badly needed aid to 217,000 residents, the UN statement said.

Yemeni officials blamed Islamic extremist groups, noting that al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen has previously attacked aid organisations around Dhale and routinely incites violence against foreign-funded humanitarian programmes, accusing them of anti-Islamic activity. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.

The UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock condemned "the continuation of media campaigns in parts of Yemen that spread rumours and incitement against aid operations", compelling them to cut back on crucial work.

The International Rescue Committee, a New York-based nonprofit, reported that grenades exploded in its office and women's centre on Sunday night and expressed "extreme concern" for the safety of its local staff. It said the group would restart programmes "as soon as it is deemed safe for our staff to return to work".

Militants also struck the Dhale office of Oxfam, one of Britain's largest charities.

"Aid workers should not be a target," said Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam's director in Yemen.

Aid workers should not be a target

Houthi attack

Days later, a missile struck a passing out ceremony in southern Yemen on Sunday, killing at least five southern separatists, security officials said.

The ceremony in Dhale was for new recruits to the separatist-dominated Security Belt Forces, a formation trained and equipped by the United Arab Emirates to patrol territory retaken from northern rebels or al-Qaeda, its spokesmen Majed al-Shuaibi said.

Five soldiers were killed and nine others wounded when the missile hit the reviewing stand during the march-past. 

Shuaibi told AFP the missile was fired by the Houthi rebels who control the capital Sanaa and much of the north.

But there was no immediate claim of responsibility from the Iran-allied rebels, whose forces are present in the mountains just 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Dhale.

The mountainous southern city is regarded the frontline between the Houthi-held north and the government-controlled south, and has seen frequent violence since the conflict began.

Hundreds of fighters from both camps have died in battles in Dhale. The city has also seen violence erupt between the pro-government camp, with clashes being reported between units from Hadi's presidency brigades and the Security Belt Forces – a UAE-backed pro-government militia.

"Most Houthi fighters captured or found killed along the battlefield in Dhale are unfortunately child soldiers," a government source told The New Arab in May.

“Dhale is the border between the north and south of Yemen, whoever controls this strategic part of the country holds the gateway to the south," the source added. 

The Houthi attack on recruits on Sunday came months after a similar attack further south.

In August, 36 Security Belt soldiers were killed in a drone and missile attack by the Houthis on a military parade ceremony just outside the main southern city of Aden.

A high-ranking Yemeni intelligence official, Brigadier General Saleh Tamah, was killed in the strike on a military parade in al-Anad airbase, in the government-held Lahj province some 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Yemen's second city and temporary capital Aden.

Among those injured were Yemen's deputy chief of staff Saleh al-Zandani, senior army commander Fadel Hasan and Lahj governor Ahmad Abdullah al-Turki.

The security forces in the south have also come under repeated attack by both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab countries intervened in Yemen's civil war in March 2015 in support of the internationally recognised government, which had been forced into exile by the Iran-backed Houthi movement.

Read more: Yemen in Focus: A deadly new battle emerges in Dhale

But the UAE has been accused by Yemen's Hadi government of attempting to occupy the south of the country, where it has established a strong base and trained thousands of fighters.

The UAE's activities in the south triggered a war within a war between rival unionist and separatist elements of the loyalist security forces, which the UAE backs.

The Security Belt Forces seized Aden in deadly fighting with unionists in August but a fragile truce reached in Saudi Arabia last month has so far failed to produce a promised power-sharing government.

The conflict, which escalated with the Saudi-led coalition intervention in 2015, has unleashed the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN, which says 80 percent of the population are in need of aid.  

Nearly 10 million people are just one step away from famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned, and figures suggest more than 100,000 have been killed.

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino