Collapsing on sidewalks and constantly vomiting, some of the Yemeni villagers barely make it to the tiny health center where doctors spread carton sheets in the backyard and use trees to hang bags of IV fluids for patients.
They are part of a stream of hundreds of suspected cholera victims that continues to converge on the center from the impoverished town of Bani Haydan in Yemen’s northern Hajja province. Just hours after being infected, vomiting and diarrhea cause severe dehydration that can kill without rapid intervention.
Yemen’s raging two-year conflict has turned the country into an incubator for lethal cholera: Primitive sanitation and water systems put Yemenis at risk of drinking feces-contaminated water; wells are dirtied by runoff from rainfall on piles of garbage left uncollected for weeks; farmland is irrigated with broken sewers due to lax oversight and corruption; medical intervention is delayed due to unpaid government employees and half of the country’s health facilities are out of service.
The cholera outbreak in Haiti has killed more than 9,000 people since 2010, but Yemen has seen the largest outbreak of the disease ever recorded in any country in a single year. The United Nations and international aid organizations say they are shocked at the speed and scale of the outbreak.
“It’s a cholera paradise,” said George Khoury, head of Office at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
One in every 120 Yemenis is now suspected of being sick with cholera, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
There have been around 2,000 deaths in the country since April 27. About 5,000 people fall sick every day and more than 450,000 more are suspected of having the disease, according to the World Health Organization.
The majority of those exposed to the bacteria known as Vibrio cholera don’t fall sick and only 1 in 10 infected people develop signs of cholera. Cases are mostly treatable with a simple rehydration solution or IV rehydration.
The role the war has played in Yemen’s cholera outbreak can’t be overemphasized, said Adeeb al-Rassabi, Sanaa general coordinator for the Electronic Disease and Warning System, the country’s epidemic surveillance system. If not for the conflict, “we would have been able to contain cholera in no more than one month, no more, no doubt.”
Khoury acknowledged that U.N. agencies were caught by surprise at the rapid increase in the spread…