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Cholera takes its toll on the people of Yemen

26 Sep 2017

After more than two years of high-intensity war, the people of Yemen are now facing another battle – a huge cholera outbreak that has affected more than 500,000 people. Claire Manera, from Fremantle, WA, shares her experiences as Project Coordinator in Khamer, Yemen.

Cholera is a water-borne infection transmitted by contaminated water and food. Since the war began, the relentless bombing of towns and villages has destroyed sources of safe water. Many people also have run for their lives, and now live out in the open, again without access to safe water. Then of course, there’s nowhere to practice good sanitation. People have no soap, or other basic hygiene items. There’s no rubbish collection, for example, or many other services we take for granted in times of peace.

To make things worse, hospitals have been bombed, or have closed down as there is no money to keep them running. Sick people have nowhere to go. People are also struggling to find food, with malnourished children being at much greater risk of death from cholera. These children are the victims of cholera, and the victims of the war. 

Because so many health facilities have stopped functioning, people have to travel further to reach help, but often have no money, fuel or transport to do so. They wait too long in the hope that they will get better, but then by the time they reach us, it’s too late. One case we had was a seven-year-old boy who started vomiting and having diarrhoea in a village several hours away. His family went desperately around their village to collect money for transport. His condition worsened as they were travelling, and unfortunately, he died ten minutes before reaching us.

The tragedy is that we can treat the symptoms reasonably easily through rehydration if people reach a health facility early enough. In our facilities in Amran, we have saved more than 10,000 people since the start of the outbreak in May. For more serious cases, we give IV fluids, but for others, we give an oral rehydration solution, which is basically a mixture of sugar and salt.

But we’ve realised this isn’t enough. If the water supply remains contaminated, then cholera will continue to spread. We’re still hearing stories of people dying in their homes in remote villages. This is why we now go into the community, to give out chlorine tablets to purify drinking water and soap for handwashing, to try and slow down the chain of transmission. We have also set up oral rehydration points in different villages, which help people survive long enough to reach a health facility, or cure them if they are not yet too ill. We are also providing health education about cholera’s causes and symptoms, so that people will hopefully be able to get help in time.”