In the Midst of Cholera and Conflict, UN Suspends Vaccination Program

The Needle” by Partha S. Sahana

July 11, 2017; New York Times

The United Nations announced this week that it is suspending a planned vaccination campaign against a raging cholera epidemic in Yemen because the very conditions that caused the epidemic—the ever-lethal combination of war and poverty—make carrying out the vaccinations untenable.

While cholera was already endemic to Yemen, in May a state of emergency was declared after the start of the current outbreak, which in just three months has sickened 313,000 people and killed 1,700, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

As reported in the New York Times, Jamie McGoldrick, the aid coordinator for the UN in Yemen, said the plans to carry out cholera vaccinations have been “set aside” owing to the dangerous conditions on the ground that have also crippled the country’s health infrastructure.

Christian Lindmeier, a World Health Organization spokesperson, said 500,000 doses of vaccine currently stored in Djibouti that were slated for Yemen will most likely be re-routed to African countries where they have a better chance of being effective.

Cholera used to be a scourge worldwide, including in the U.S., but today it’s easily prevented through access to clean water and sanitation systems. That means it now overwhelmingly affects people living in poverty, who lack these things. The sickness, which is marked by explosive watery diarrhea and vomiting, can be fatal in a matter of hours if untreated. Treatment for the bacterial infection is simple—rehydration and antibiotics—but even those are often out of reach in many poor countries.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has been in a state of war since 2014 when the government was overthrown by rebels. In 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the U.S. began bombing Yemen in an effort to oust the rebels and restore the previous government. More than 8,000 people have been killed and 3 million people have been displaced in the conflict.

As reported in the New York Times last week, the seeds were sown for this cholera outbreak back in October when the government stopped paying civil servants and sanitation workers went on strike, leaving piles of garbage and sewage backups to contaminate drinking water.

Only 45 percent of Yemen’s hospitals are operational, according the International Red Cross. (NPQ reported on the Saudi-coalition bombing of a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Yemen last year.)

Even when help is available, it can be hard to reach. Roads have been destroyed in the war, and transportation is not only arduous but expensive.

The UN is finding only anemic response to its appeals for funding for mushrooming crises throughout the world, some of its own making. In Haiti, the UN actually is responsible (as NPQ reported last year) for starting a cholera epidemic that so far has killed nearly 10,000 and sickened 800,000. It has sought $400 million from member states to fight the sickness and hunger and to make amends to its victims. According to its website, it has so far raised less than $3 million, and spent most of that.

The UN has sought $2.1 billion to fight hunger facing millions in Yemen, but has only raised one third that sum. The UN sent out a funding appeal for $250 million to fight cholera in Yemen, but has so far raised only $47 million. This week, the UN said that if it does not raise the remaining $200 million to fight cholera in Yemen, it will have to rob Peter to pay Paul and take the sum from the monies meant to fight famine.

“All of this is entirely manmade,” McGoldrick said, “as a result of the conflict.”—Nancy Young