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WHO Warns of Diseases Spreading in Tigray Because of Conflict

FILE - An Ethiopian woman who fled the fighting in the Tigray region carries her child near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state, Sudan, Nov. 22, 2020.

The World Health Organization is warning that conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province and the consequent disruption of health services could lead to the spread of deadly diseases there.

Ethiopia’s November military assault on Tigray has caused a major break in the humanitarian pipeline there. The United Nations estimates that over 4.5 million people, about half of them children, need assistance.

The WHO and other agencies have been granted only limited access to the region. WHO officials who recently visited the area say many hospitals and clinics are only partially functioning, health care workers have been displaced and essential services have been disrupted.

WHO health emergency officer Teresa Zakaria warns the disruption of essential health services has severe consequences for the population, particularly children.

Measles, malaria

“From January to November last year, over 400 cases of measles in children were reported," she said. "With disruptions to routine vaccination, this number may increase significantly in the near future. Over 9,000 cases of malaria were recorded and when compounded with malnutrition, fatality due to malaria among children can increase up to threefold.”

WHO reports the incidence of COVID-19 in the Tigray region is higher than the average for the country. Up to November, more than 6,700 COVID-19 cases and 47 deaths had been reported. Zakaria says COVID-19 response activities initially were shut down and have been slow to pick up, posing a major health risk.

She says referral hospitals cannot accept patients with serious conditions. This, she warns could lead to a surge in preventable illness and death if health services are not resumed immediately.

“With most disease prevention activities interrupted and based on what we know of past history of outbreaks, the risk of spread of COVID-19, measles, cholera, malaria, yellow fever and meningitis is very real," Zakaria said. "And other health conditions are also left untreated. However, without a functional disease surveillance system, we are not able to gauge the epidemiological situation and we are flying blind.”

WHO says with the help of other organizations it has been able to send needed medicines and supplies to health facilities in Tigray, but much more needs to be done.

It is calling for greater access to the region and for more financial support from donors. To date, it has received less than half of the $9.8 million it says it needs for its humanitarian operation.