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Diphtheria Cases Soaring in Yemen as Blockade Creates Shortage of Vaccines

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - A Yemeni health worker marks a finger of a girl after giving her a polio vaccination during a house-to-house polio immunization campaign in Sanaa, Yemen.

The World Health Organization reports the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen’s sea ports is hampering efforts to contain a diphtheria outbreak that, so far, has caused 197 cases of the disease, including 22 deaths.

Diphtheria has spread to 13 of Yemen’s 22 governorates, including the capital Sana’a, since the first case was detected less than two weeks ago. World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier, says the Saudi blockade is hindering WHO’s ability to import the vaccines needed to keep the disease in check.

“There is still not even one dose of Tetanus-Diphtheria vaccine in the country for children above five years and young adults," said Lindmeier. "Around 8.5 million doses are needed for three rounds of the vaccination campaign.”

Diphtheria is an infectious bacterial disease. It can cause severe breathing difficulties, suffocating its victims to death. Lindmeier tells VOA diphtheria is a vaccine-preventable disease.

“So, what we did is, we had a vaccination campaign for children under five years," said Lindmeier. "That was possible with the material which was available in country. And, 1,000 doses of anti-toxins have reached Sana’a on Monday, just Monday 27th…These things are crucial, these things are important.”

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Following an international outcry, Saudi Arabia has partially lifted the blockade. As a consequence, Lindmeier says a ship carrying 33 tons of medical supplies, including surgical supply kits, infant incubators, and vaccine cold boxes is arriving in Hodeida port.

But, because of the long delay and closure of access, he says there is a big backlog of anti-diphtheria vaccines and other supplies stored in Djibouti and elsewhere waiting to get in.

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