Yemen facing hidden cholera crisis as COVID-19 cases set to peak in coming weeks: Oxfam

Thousands of people in Yemen could be dying from undetected cases of cholera because COVID-19 has overwhelmed the country’s health facilities and people are too frightened to seek treatment for fear of the virus, Oxfam said today.

The number of coronavirus cases in Yemen is likely to peak in the coming weeks while the heaviest rains are expected in August which could deepen a hidden cholera crisis.

The numbers of recorded suspected cholera cases since March have shown an abnormal decrease. In the first three months of 2020, there were more than 100,000 suspected cases of cholera in Yemen but this dropped by 50 per cent in the second three months. Last year, the numbers increased by 70 per cent in the second quarter because it coincides with the start of rainy season.

It means it’s likely there are already tens of thousands of people suffering with undetected and untreated cases of cholera. According to the WHO, half of those diagnosed with cholera will die from the disease if it's left untreated but with timely and adequate treatment, that will remain below 1 per cent.

The first case of coronavirus was reported in the country in April and although officially only 1,644 cases had been recorded by July 22, the actual figure is likely to be far higher because of underreporting and a lack of testing facilities. The UK’s Department for International Development has estimated it could already be as high as one million.

Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director said: “Yemen is on course for a truly horrific catastrophe as both cholera and COVID-19 could peak in the coming weeks. Yemenis desperately need an end to the fighting which has destroyed health facilities and left communities more vulnerable to the virus.

“Rather than show that Yemen has cholera and COVID-19 under control, the low official numbers demonstrate the exact opposite. A lack of working health facilities and people too scared to get treatment mean that the numbers suffering from these diseases are being vastly under recorded.”

Yemen has also been hit by the economic fallout from the coronavirus. A slump in remittances and even tighter restrictions on vital food imports mean there have been huge increases in the price of food and millions of Yemenis are being pushed deeper into a hunger crisis.

Compounding this is a lack of funding to meet people’s needs. Only two per cent of funding needed to provide clean water and sanitation to stop the spread of COVID-19 has been given. Overall, there’s less than a third of the funding for Yemen now than at the same point last year even though COVID-19 has exacerbated what was already the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster.

Siddiquey said: “The world is reeling from the economic blow dealt by the coronavirus but that shouldn’t mean that the millions of Yemenis who were already suffering through hunger, disease and conflict should be abandoned to their fate.

“Yemen urgently needs the international community to increase funding to ensure that all those who have had to flee their homes, struggle with disease or face hunger get the life-saving aid they need.”

Since the confirmation of cases of coronavirus in Yemen in April, Oxfam has refocused its work to respond to the pandemic. We are working on rehabilitating the water supply to one of the main hospitals in Aden, distributing hygiene kits for the most vulnerable households, and trucking in clean water to camps for people who have had to flee their homes. We have also given cash for food to families affected by flooding. Across Yemen, we’re training community health volunteers to spread the word about coronavirus and the importance of hygiene and hand washing.

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Notes to Editors: 
  • Modelling of COVID cases by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has been interpreted by DFID to show cases peaking in Yemen in July and August. Modelling by Imperial College London, available here, shows cases peaking in October.
  • Data showing the number of suspected cholera cases is available here
  • DFID made the estimate of 1 million case of cholera in Yemen.
For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Paula Baker
Media Relations
Oxfam Canada
(613) 240-3047

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