Parents watch children take their last breaths, as cholera explodes in Yemen

Parents watch children take their last breaths, as cholera explodes in Yemen

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With 20 cholera deaths and 3,460 suspected cases reported in a single day, a state-of-emergency has been declared in the war-torn country

Biqdad, nine, and Mariah, two, are receiving treatment for cholera in the state-run Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)
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Last update: 
Monday 22 May 2017 12:48 UTC

SANAA - Hundreds of people have taken over the corridors and lobby of state-run Al-Sabeen hospital in the heart of the Yemeni capital. Their eyes are dry, and they cannot hold back the vomit, as they desperately seek treatment for the cholera epidemic that has rapidly spread throughout the capital.



Yemenis infected with cholera lie in the corridor of the Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

Some patients, including several children, have stopped breathing. Within a few minutes, doctors announce their deaths as grieving parents watch on.

Doctor Nabil al-Najar, deputy head of Al-Sabeen hospital, goes around checking on patients. He said that hospitals, already worn down by two years of war, were being overwhelmed by the large number of people coming in for care. They receive at least 200 new cases every day in addition to patients who have been injured in air strikes.



A child infected with cholera is being treated in the lobby of Al-Sabeen hospital (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

"Here we put three children in one bed, and there we put a husband, his wife and their child in one bed; the hospital has no more beds," Najar said.

“We also have a shortage of medicine, and we cannot cope with the increasing number of patients." 

On Friday, the World Health Organisation said cholera had taken the lives of 242 people in Yemen in the past three weeks, in addition to over 23,000 who had fallen sick from the disease.



Children infected with cholera lies in the corridor in Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa capital of Yemen (MEE/ Mohammed Hamoud)

Hamamah Abdullah, 38, is the mother of four cholera-infected children between the ages of one and 13 years old.



Hamamah Abdullah, 38, holds her little son Hassan, one, who is cholera-infected as they sit in the hallway of Al-Sabeen hospital (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

“My elder son Taha, 13, was first infected, and then he transmitted the disease to his brothers and sister," Abdullah said. "Doctors told me there were no more beds available for my children and put the children on a blanket on the ground in the corridor to receive treatment." 

Abdallah is terrified of losing her children because of the lack of medication. Even if they get better, she worries they will be infected again due to how widely the disease has spread.



A doctor examines four brothers infected with cholera in the corridor of Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

Latifa Ahmed says that her 20-year-old daughter Zikriya went into a coma after suffering from severe diarrhoea and vomiting for one day. She is now undergoing treatment in the hospital.

"There is not enough medicine, beds, doctors. At night I can’t find doctors to check on my daughter," Ahmed said.

According to AFP, WHO acting representative in Yemen, Nevio Zagaria, said during a conference that "the speed of the resurgence of this cholera epidemic is unprecedented".



Abdullah Abdulftah, one, who is cholera-infected, is held by his father in the lobby of Al-Sabeen hospital (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

Zagaria said that, in the past day alone, 20 cholera deaths and 3,460 suspected cases had been registered in the country, where two-thirds of the population are on the brink of famine. Many other cases and deaths are likely going unreported.

Zagaria said many of the remaining health workers in the country had not been paid for seven months, adding that the number of suspected cholera cases could be much higher than those registered.

Earlier this week, authorities in Sanaa declared a state of emergency over the outbreak of cholera in the Houthi rebel-controlled Yemeni capital. The health ministry said that cases of cholera had worsened and that it was "unable to contain this disaster".



Musleh Rajeh, 90, gets treatment for cholera on a bed in the lobby of Al-Sabeen hospital (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab and Gulf countries in support of Yemen's toppled government against Shia Houthi rebels. The war has left at least 10,000 civilians dead and three million have been displaced so far. 

Yemenis who have survived the shelling and bombs are now at risk of dying from cholera, a highly contagious bacterial infection contracted through ingesting contaminated food or water.



IV fluid, chlorine tablets and oral rehydration salts help treat the cholera epidemic. (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

The outbreak of cholera in Yemen was first announced by Yemen's Ministry of Public Health and Population on 6 October last year. 

Dr Malak Shahir of Doctors Without Borders said that the "cholera epidemic is mainly caused by the mix between the dirty sewage water and piles of rubbish bags on the streets and residential neighbourhoods."



The cholera epidemic was caused by sewage and piles of rubbish in residential areas (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

The health crisis escalated during a garbage crisis in the capital, caused by a 10-day strike by rubbish collectors who were demanding unpaid salaries. They resumed their work last weekend after being paid.

“We were not paid our salaries for the past two months, and as a result rubbish bags piled up through all streets and neighbourhoods of the capital,” said rubbish collector Salim al-Zabidy.



Garbage collector, Salim al-Zabidy, collects garbage from a residential area in Sanaa (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

“The authorities always delay our salaries under the pretext of the lack of financial liquidity due to the war," he said.

WHO’s Zagaria said that Yemeni authorities need funding to help make essential infrastructure repairs to protect water resources.

"The spread of the disease is too big, and they need substantial support in terms of repairing the sewer system ... treating and chlorinating the water sources." 

Without dramatic efforts to halt the spread of the disease, "the price that we will pay in terms of life will be extremely high," he said.



Fatimah Abdu, 75, receives treatment for cholera at Al-Sabeen hospital (MEE/Mohammed Hamoud)

At the hospital new cholera cases keep arriving. Three-year-old Zain al-Abideen al-Sabari lies on the ground of the hospital lobby as he receives IV treatment. 

"I brought my son to Al-Sabeen hospital after many other hospitals refused to admit him because there were no more beds to receive him," said Fatimah Abdu Ahmed, Sabari's mother. 

"I hope the war will end, the economic blockade will be lifted, cholera will be defeated and my son will recover very soon," she said.