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Suspected Cholera Cases Pass 300,000 In Yemen, Red Cross Says

Jul 10, 2017

The cholera outbreak in Yemen marked a grim milestone Monday, as the International Committee of the Red Cross announced there are now more than 300,000 suspected cases of the disease in the country.

The epidemic has claimed more than 1,600 lives in roughly 10 weeks and "continues to spiral out of control," according to the agency.

In late June, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic in the war-torn nation "the worst cholera outbreak in the world." At that point, the WHO placed the number of cases at more than 200,000.

Robert Mardini, the Red Cross regional director for the Middle East, says the epidemic is now growing by about 7,000 new cases per day.

"Half of these cases are children," UNICEF's Sherin Varkey told NPR's Kelly McEvers last week. "To understand the scale, we know that one new child is reporting sick with diarrhea every minute. The conflict has had a direct impact on children in terms of many children injured, maimed and killed. But the additional effect on children is due to the failure and collapse of the public service systems.

"All in all," Varkey added, "the situation for children is catastrophic in Yemen today."

Cholera, a centuries-old waterborne disease that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea, is now treatable in much of the world. Wth a quick response, medical workers can replace lost fluids and send a sick patient on the path to recovery.

"A patient with cholera should never die," public health expert David Sack told NPR's Jason Beaubien earlier this year. "If they get to a treatment center in time, if they still have a breath, we can save their life."

Yet in Yemen — where a war has raged for more than two years between Houthi rebels and an international coalition supporting the government they displaced — the infrastructure to provide clean water and treat the disease has been decimated by the violence.

The New York Times explains:

"In October, the government stopped paying civil servants, prompting strikes from sanitation workers and leading to garbage pileups and septic backups. That contaminated the wells that many Yemenis rely on for water, providing the ideal environment for cholera to spread. The outbreak picked up speed in April, after dirty rainwater further polluted the wells."

As the Times notes, the number of cases since late April in Yemen alone now dwarfs the number reported worldwide in all of 2015.

Reuters reports that there are 30,000 health workers in Yemen who have not been paid in more than 10 months because of the economic collapse there. So the United Nations "has stepped in with 'incentive' payments to get them involved in an emergency campaign to fight the disease."

And late last month, UNICEF announced the delivery of "36 tons of lifesaving medical and water purification supplies" to Yemen.

Those efforts appear to have had some effect. Rina Shaikh-Lasko reported late last month the rate of new infections seems to be slowing there.

Still, Mardini says the situation in Yemen remains "disturbing."

And in a country racked by war and disease, the U.N.'s World Food Program notes another danger looms: famine. The agency says roughly 17 million people do not have enough food.

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