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WHO: Yemen Children Dying from Rapid Spread of Diphtheria

FILE - Nahla Arishi, a pediatrician, checks a boy infected with diphtheria at the al-Sadaqa teaching hospital in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, Dec. 18, 2017.

The World Health Organization warns that children in Yemen are dying as diphtheria, a preventable disease, spreads rapidly throughout the country.

Forty-six of the more than 470 people with clinically diagnosed diphtheria in Yemen — or nearly 10 percent — have died in less than four months, according to WHO.

"Diphtheria is a highly infectious but vaccine-preventable disease," WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said. "It can be treated with antitoxins and antibiotics, both of which are in short supply in Yemen. The diphtheria vaccine is normally administered as a part of routine immunization programs for children around the world.

"The rapid spread of diphtheria in Yemen highlights major gaps in routine vaccination and also means the health system is under severe strain."

Sixty-eight percent of suspected diphtheria cases are children under 15 years old, Jasarevic said.

WHO has deployed Rapid Response Teams throughout affected parts of the country to ensure proper case detection, contact tracing and follow up, as well as health education.

WHO has delivered $200,000 worth of antibiotics and 1,000 vials of diphtheria antitoxins, Jasarevic said. The medication can help stop the spread of the bacterium to vital organs in patients already infected with diphtheria.

However, prevention remains the best way to contain the spread of the disease. In preparation for a nationwide immunization campaign, the U.N. children's fund imported 5.5 million doses of anti-diphtheria vaccines into the country December 20.

The final decision on when the campaign will kick off rests with Yemeni health authorities, who have not yet given the go-ahead.