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Yemen: “I was surprised by the numbers of people with medical problems not related to the conflict”

18 Oct 2017

Dr Liam Hannon is an emergency doctor from Melbourne who recently spent four months working with Médecins Sans Frontières in Yemen. 

“Before coming to Yemen, I had expected to be treating many victims of the fighting, and we did. However I was surprised by the numbers of ordinary people with medical problems not directly related to the conflict who were in need of care. As a result of the war, health services in the country have been badly affected and people often cannot access or afford treatment. I spent the first half of my assignment working in a large referral hospital in the city of Ibb, in the south-west of the country, where Médecins Sans Frontières ran the emergency department. 

"To make matters worse the wound was now filled with maggots."

Late-stage cancer

One day a frail, elderly woman came in with her equally frail, elderly husband. They had fled the fighting in Taiz and had come to Ibb. Unfortunately unlike many of the displaced people in Yemen, they had no children or relatives to take them in and so had to fend for themselves. They didn’t have a proper home, but were living in a makeshift shelter near the hospital. The elderly lady had cancer of the neck. She had not been able to receive medical care for this and now presented at a very late stage. The skin of her neck had broken down and was badly infected leaving a large, pus-filled wound. She had severe pain and difficulty swallowing, not that she had much food to eat anyway. This left her extremely wasted. To make matters worse the wound was now filled with maggots.

We cleaned the wound, removed as many of the maggots as we could, gave her antibiotics and pain relief and put a clean dressing over it to prevent more flies getting in. At least the smell and pain of the wound had now reduced. This was all we could do, it was far too late in her illness to do anything more. And then they left, holding each other up as they slowly walked out through the hospital gates. This cycle repeated every few days for the rest of my assignment in Ibb, as the couple returned to have the wound cleaned.  Towards the end of my time there the rains came. On their final visit I found out that their shelter had washed away in a heavy downpour. It is difficult to imagine what the future holds for this elderly couple.

"As we explained this to the father, the tears began to roll down his face, his head bowed, hugging his small boy"

Lack of food

I spent the second half of my assignment in Haydan, northern Yemen, where Médecins Sans Frontières runs the emergency department, a small inpatient department and a maternity ward. One night I was called down to the hospital to see a child who had been brought in by his father. When I arrived I found the worried father sitting on the bed holding his small three-year-old son. The child looked far smaller than three. He had not been well for the past few weeks, getting progressively weaker and was now so sick that he couldn’t eat or drink. It was clear that the child was severely malnourished and would require urgent transfer to the therapeutic feeding centre in a neighbouring town. As we explained this to the father, the tears began to roll down his face, his head bowed, hugging his small boy. His child critically unwell through nothing more than lack of food. I don’t know what happened to the boy, but at least we were able to refer him for the care he needed.

Seeing patients like the elderly woman and this young boy showed how this war is affecting every aspect of life for the people in Yemen, not just those directly caught up in the fighting.”