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Mass Diphtheria Vaccination Campaign Set to Begin in Yemen

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

In Yemen, the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners will kick-off a long-awaited mass vaccination campaign next week to contain the continued spread of diphtheria.

The WHO says 1.4 million people in 41 districts that have reported diphtheria cases during the last month will be vaccinated against the potentially fatal disease. It says the mass campaign will target children and adolescents up to the age of 15.

The latest official count of suspected cases of diphtheria in Yemen stands at 914, including 59 deaths. WHO says this represents a significant drop in the fatality rate from 10 percent to 6.5 percent in the space of a few weeks.

WHO representative for Yemen, Nevio Zagaria, says it is unclear whether the epidemic has peaked. But, he notes there has been a steep decline in the number of cases in the most severely affected governorate of Ibb.

Speaking by telephone from the Yemeni capital Sana’a, he said the reduction in new cases is due in large part to the deployment of rapid-response teams to identify people who have fallen ill with diphtheria and those who have come in contact with them.

“So, this, together with some vaccinations that have been conducted in the under-seven population in Ibb in November and December can explain the reduction of the new cases and the new admissions in Ibb. But, the overall [the] epidemic is still spreading to other districts and we cannot say that it is over,” Zagaria said.

The U.N. children’s fund UNICEF took advantage of Saudi Arabia’s partial lifting of a blockade of Yemen’s air and seaports on December 20 to import six million doses of essential vaccines against preventable diseases, including diphtheria.

Since then, however, aid agencies had been frustrated in efforts to mount a mass diphtheria vaccination campaign because they did not get an immediate go-ahead from Yemeni health authorities.