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The war in Yemen has led to the worst cholera outbreak in the world

“In just two months, cholera has spread to almost every [part] of this war-torn country.”

A picture of a Yemeni child lying on a hospital bed
A Yemeni child being treated for cholera. More than 1,300 have already died, a quarter of them children.
Mohammed Huwais / Getty Images

The cholera epidemic in Yemen has now become "the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year," British charity Oxfam reported on Friday.

There are more than 360,000 suspected cases and 5,000 more being added per day. 1,800 victims have already died, a quarter of them children. Hard as this may be to believe, these numbers will only continue to worsen in the coming months as Yemen struggles with its rainy season spanning July to September.

“In just two months, cholera has spread to almost every [part] of this war-torn country,” the United Nations said in statement last month. “We are now facing the worst cholera outbreak in the world.”

Yemen’s civil war erupted in 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels ousted the country’s Saudi Arabia–backed central government. It has since evolved into a violent proxy war between the two regional powers that has killed more than 10,000 and pushed close to 3 million Yemenis out of their homes. Saudi Arabia has increased its involvement with US help, increasing ground troops and airstrikes: on June 24, the last day of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia ordered over 50 airstrikes in just 24 hours. This came just days after a Saudi airstrike on a market in northern Yemen killed 25 Yemenis.

This brutal military campaign has destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, causing the spread of easily preventable diseases like cholera. According to the UN, 14.5 million people — which is more than half the country — has already lost access to clean water and sanitation as a direct result of the war.

The fighting needs to stop for the outbreak to end

Cholera is caused by a bacterial infection of the intestine that leads to severe diarrhea and vomiting. In theory, it’s an easy disease to treat.

“The prompt administration of oral rehydration salts to replace lost fluids nearly always results in a cure,” writes the World Health Organization.

The problem is that in Yemen right now, even clean water is a luxury. Water and sanitation systems have been severely damaged in recent months as a direct result of the fighting, UNICEF spokesperson Najwa Mekki said in an interview.

In January of last year, a water desalination plant in the city of Mokha was destroyed by reported airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition group. This cut off more than a million people in the nearby city of Taiz from their only source of clean water.

More recently, in April, the sewer system in the capital city of Sana’a stopped working, though it’s not clear if this was the direct result of military strikes. Ten days later, a cholera epidemic hit the city, according to the BBC.

In the absence of working water and sanitation systems, cholera is not just hard to treat — it’s deadly. The disease spreads through water, so once a central water source is contaminated, everyone who relies on it is likely to get the disease. It’s made worse during emergencies such as the Yemeni civil war where people are huddled in overcrowded refugee camps, sharing whatever scarce supply of water there is.

Once they contract the disease, many Yemenis die without the right medical care, some within hours. The health system in Yemen has nearly collapsed, said Mekki. Half of the country’s health care facilities, which include clinics and hospitals, are not functioning. Close to 15 million people have no access to health care.

Yemen’s youngest and most defenseless are suffering the worst. Children under the age of 5 have the highest incidence of cholera, and account for close to half of the fatalities. Hundreds of Yemeni children have already died from the disease, and this number is likely to climb with the 5,000 new cases of cholera being reported daily.

The conflict in Yemen has inflicted a particularly heavy toll on children, Mekki said. Apart from the cholera outbreak, more than 400,000 of the country’s children face malnutrition, and nearly 2 million have been taken out of school, an increasing number of whom are being recruited as child soldiers, reported Amnesty International.

Yemeni children have been living a nightmare for more than two years. Amazingly, and horrifyingly, it’s still getting worse.

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