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Yemen faces 'hidden cholera crisis' as coronavirus overwhelms health system

Oxfam warns thousands could be dying undetected from cholera with people 'too frightened' to seek treatment in facilities overwhelmed by Covid-19
Doctors attend to a patient infected with the coronavirus disease in Aden, Yemen in June.
Doctors attend to a patient infected with the coronavirus in the Yemeni city of Aden in June (Reuters)

Thousands of Yemenis could be dying undetected from cholera, with people "too frightened" to seek treatment in health facilities overwhelmed by coronavirus, Oxfam has warned.

The charity said on Tuesday that coronavirus cases are expected to peak in the coming weeks, with heavy rains in August likely to deepen the "hidden cholera crisis".

According to Oxfam, more than 100,000 suspected cholera cases were recorded in the first three months of the year, but the figure dropped by 50 percent in the second quarter as the coronavirus spread globally.

Typically, the number of cases rises in the second quarter to coincide with the start of the rainy season, such as the case last year when the number of cases rose by 70 percent after the first quarter.

Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam's Yemen director, said Yemen was "on course for a truly horrific catastrophe" with both Covid-19 and cholera set to peak next month.

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"Yemenis desperately need an end to the fighting which has destroyed health facilities and left communities more vulnerable to the virus," he said.

Around half of those diagnosed with cholera are expected to die if they are left untreated, but timely and adequate intervention would see that drop to below one percent.

"Rather than show that Yemen has cholera and Covid-19 under control, the low official numbers demonstrate the exact opposite," Siddiquey said. "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."

While Yemen has officially recorded 1,644 Covid-19 cases, including 446 deaths, the real number is thought to be significantly higher. Last month, research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated that infections may have already reached one million.

The US-based charity MedGlobal reported last week that nearly 100 medical professionals had died in Yemen after contracting the virus, dealing a devastating blow to a country plagued by five years of war and conflict.

Siddiquey added that the international community urgently needed to increase its funding to Yemen with higher food prices pushing millions deeper into a hunger crisis.

"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," he said.