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Preventable, Forgotten Diseases Re-emerging in Besieged Yemen

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - People fill buckets with water from a well that is alleged to be contaminated water with the bacterium Vibrio cholera, on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, Jul. 12, 2017.

The charity, Doctors Without Borders reports preventable, long-forgotten diseases are re-emerging in Yemen due to the catastrophic war that has been going on since March 2015.

Diphtheria has been eradicated in most parts of the world. The last outbreak of this highly infectious, but preventable respiratory disease occurred in 1982 in Yemen. But, this disease has made a deadly comeback after two and one-half years of catastrophic war and the blockade of humanitarian and commercial goods imposed by Saudi Arabia.

Marc Poncin is Emergency Coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Yemen. He said an outbreak of diphtheria emerged in early October.

"Today, we have a bit more than 300 cases of diphtheria, 35 deaths," he said. "So, it is a mortality rate of above 10 percent. What is really worrying with diphtheria is the mortality rate in the under-five. We have 25 percent, one out of four children dying of diphtheria in Yemen."

Unfortunately, he said the vaccines needed to prevent diphtheria and the antibiotics to treat the infection are both in short supply.

Yemen is suffering the worst cholera epidemic in history. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports cholera cases in Yemen have now reached the one millionth mark. Poncin said he believes this official figure is largely exaggerated.

"If you look at the mortality rate, for instance, of cholera, it has decreased a lot line in the three last months," he added. "That shows that probably most of the cases today that are reported are diarrhea, simple diarrhea, not cholera."

However, he warned this is no time for complacency. While reported cases have gone down to 15,000 a week from a high of 50,000 at the end of June, he says cholera remains a serious problem.

Poncin noted worrying predictions from experts who say they expect a new wave of cholera to emerge next year during Yemen's rainy season in March and April.

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