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The forgotten epidemic that is quietly advancing in Yemen

More than 7,400 dengue infections and 59 deaths have been recorded, at the same time that the coronavirus is also spreading through the already devastated country
A health worker examines a water pond due to an outbreak of dengue fever in Aslam, Hajja Governorate, Yemen

REUTERS/ELISSA ALRAGEHI  -   A health worker examines a water pond due to an outbreak of dengue fever in Aslam, Hajja Governorate, Yemen

While the world faces the coronavirus pandemic, another serious epidemic has begun to spread silently in Yemen, a country devastated by a war that began in 2014 and which has made this nation the poorest in the region. Recent flooding in the country has created the perfect breeding ground for a new wave of dengue fever cases. The outbreak has killed as many as 59 people and infected more than 7,400, according to local media reports.  

The new wave of dengue cases has put the health system of a country on the brink of collapse at risk. Just a fortnight ago, a report warned that attacks on hospitals and health centres have decimated the health system in a region that is unprepared to deal with the new global pandemic caused by the coronavirus. Health workers at Ibn Sina Hospital in Al-Mukalla, the capital of Yemen's south-eastern Hadramout province, staged a protest calling for protective equipment to be handed out to staff after they were forced to treat a patient who had died from COVID-19 without even having gloves or masks to wear, according to the Arab News. 

Dengue fever symptoms begin after an incubation period that can vary from five to eight days after the mosquito bite, and people often have coronavirus-like symptoms such as high fever, general weakness, or cough. The political, social and economic crisis in Yemen has prevented the country's health authorities from spraying the main areas of infection. In view of this situation, they have called for immediate intervention by the Government of Yemen and the humanitarian aid organizations present in the country to stop the spread of dengue cases, before hospitals collapse.

Niños recuperándose de dengue
PHOTO//REUTERS - Children recovering from dengue fever at a hospital in Al-Hudeida, Yemen

A doctor at the Ibn Sina Hospital in Yemen told Arab News that "the hospital administration says it will release its stock of equipment for health workers when the first case of COVID-19 occurs". According to the same doctor, Aden, Taiz, Lahj, Hadramout, Abyan and Shabwa were the areas most affected by the latest dengue outbreak. In Aden, one of the country's largest cities, at least 42 people have died of dengue fever. "Most of the beds at Ibn Sina Hospital are occupied by dengue patients. We need those beds for patients with coronavirus," he warned. "After the recent rains and floods, the number of cases and deaths is likely to increase rapidly. We urgently need a health education campaign," he added. "We receive at least 25 new cases (of dengue fever) daily. Each new case scares the doctors, nurses and health workers," Farouq Qaid Naji, a doctor at Al-Jumhuriya Hospital in the port city of Aden, told Arab News. 

This new dengue outbreak has begun to spread through the country quietly at the same time as the head of the Department of Disease Control and Epidemics of the Hutu Health Ministry warned the EFE agency that "the country's capacities are very weak and our resources are scarce" to deal with the arrival of the COVID-19.  " We are already short of beds and equipment because we have had to face several epidemics and diseases and we are under a (military and economic) blockade that has created great needs, not to mention the coronavirus," he said.  Several NGOs, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, have in recent weeks urged the warring parties to the conflict to take "all necessary measures to respect health facilities and hospitals as humanitarian spaces".

Violence continues to conquer every corner of the country  

In this spiral of instability, a series of reports from the United Nations indicate that at least six women and one child were killed and 11 others injured last Sunday after shells hit the women's section of the Central Prison in Al Mudhaffar district in Taizz governorate.  In an official statement, the UN has warned that the number of victims is likely to be higher. "We share our deepest condolences with the families who are grieving for their loved ones and wish the injured a speedy recovery", said Lise Grande, humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. 

The wounded were moved after the attack to Al Thawra and Al Bureihi hospitals, where humanitarian partners are providing surgical and medical supplies, including equipment to treat certain injuries. It should be recalled at this point that the Al Thawra hospital was hit by missiles as many as twice in March, the UN has warned. "We are facing enormous humanitarian problems in the country," Lise Grande admitted. "There is no reason or justification for these attacks. It is time for both warring parties to sit down together and find political solutions," she added. In addition, in the same statement, the UN reported that of the 41 major humanitarian programmes it has in the country, 31 will be reduced or closed during the month of April, if they are not urgently funded.

Desinfección furgoneta Saná
PHOTO/AFP - A Yemeni volunteer disinfects the interior of a public van in the capital Sana'a amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic presents a new challenge to a country already devastated by war and where one civilian has died every three and a half hours since the conflict began, according to data provided by the NGO Oxfam. In Yemen, about 80 per cent of the population needs some form of humanitarian assistance and protection. This humanitarian crisis, forgotten and ignored by some countries in the international community, has brought ten million people to the brink of famine and another seven million to the brink of malnutrition. In addition, nearly 14 million people are now dependent on humanitarian aid every month in order to survive. Unfortunately, war has not ceased to accompany Yemeni society in recent years. The new wave of dengue fever, the constant violence to which they are subjected and the crisis of the coronavirus have put on the table the need to find a lasting and stable peace, a peace that will allow these 14 million people to have decent living conditions.