Yemeni children bearing the brunt of the worst diphtheria outbreak in a generation

Yemeni children bearing the brunt of the worst diphtheria outbreak in a generation

International aid agencies are warning of more deaths in Yemen from diphtheria, unless Saudi Arabia eases A blockade on the country and allows in more aid.
3 min read
22 January, 2018
Yemen's children have suffered from an array of illnesses and malnutrition due to blockade (Getty)
A new diphtheria outbreak looks set to grip Yemen, with Save the Children warning thousands of children are at risk from the deadly disease unless the Saudi-led coalition lifts a naval blockade on the war-torn country.

Aid workers are struggling to cope with the country's worst diphtheria outbreak since 1989 following a spike in cases in November, the charity said.

The outbreak of the deadly disease has worsened due to the Saudi-led coalition's blockade on Yemen, which has led to cuts to vital supplies and aid access.

"Diphtheria is highly contagious, and there's so little help right now that families are carrying their children for hundreds of miles to get to us," said Dr Mariam Aldogani, Save the Children's field coordinator for the coastal city of Hodeidah.

"But they're arriving too late and infecting people on the way. Yesterday I cried with a mother who lost her child - there was nothing we could do for her daughter by the time she got here."

She said most Yemenis have not been vaccinated for the disease and the charity lacks stockpiles of vaccine to cope with the outbreak.

"The blockade is making it impossible to bring in specialists, medicine or essential items like ventilators to keep sick children alive. Unless there's urgent action now, we will not be able to stop the spread of diphtheria."

So far, 700 suspected cases have been reported with 52 Yemenis dying from the disease with young children bearing the brunt. Save the Children said 90 per cent of fatalities are victims aged under-15.
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Respiratory diphtheria is fatal in five to ten percent of cases and the risk of transmission - through close physical or airborne contact - is very high.

Hodeidah has been Yemen's main entry point for essential supplies of food, fuel and humanitarian aid.

Despite a partial easing of a nationwide blockade in December, Yemen's monthly fuel and food imports remain well below levels needed to sustain the population.

The fuel shortage has inflated prices and doubled the cost of public transportation preventing many patients from travelling to the few health facilities still functioning.   

Any tightening of the blockade could have a devastating impact on children.

"This is another grim example of how total and destructive this war is. A cholera epidemic has already infected more than a million people, and now we’re facing an outbreak of an even more deadly disease. Both would have been preventable with basic sanitation, healthcare and vaccines.” Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s Country Director in Yemen, said.

"But by bombing hospitals and health clinics and blocking the supplies children need to survive, parties to the conflict are making a catastrophic situation even worse."

On Sunday, the UN made a record appeal for aid to Yemen, calling on the international community to donate nearly $3 billion to save the country from furher catastrophe.