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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

More than 1 million malnourished children in Yemen at risk of cholera

The scaling up in response came after latest figures show that a deadly cholera epidemic that started in April 2015 has infected more than 425,000 people and killed almost 1,900

A boy stands outside his family's house amid a cholera outbreak in a poor neighbourhood of Sanaa, Yemen on July 10, 2017. Reuters / Khaled Abdullah
A boy stands outside his family's house amid a cholera outbreak in a poor neighbourhood of Sanaa, Yemen on July 10, 2017. Reuters / Khaled Abdullah

More than one million malnourished children aged under five in Yemen are living in areas with high levels of cholera, the charity Save the Children warned on Wednesday as it began sending more health experts to the worst hit areas.

The scaling up in response came after latest figures show that a deadly cholera epidemic that started in April 2015 has infected more than 425,000 people and killed almost 1,900.

Save the Children said children under the age of 15 are now accounting for about 44 per cent of new cases and 32 per cent of fatalities in Yemen where a devastating civil war and economic collapse has left millions on the brink of starvation.

"The tragedy is both malnutrition and cholera are easily treatable if you have access to basic health care," said Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children's country director for Yemen.

"But hospitals and clinics have been destroyed, government health workers haven't been paid for almost a year, and the delivery of vital aid is being obstructed."

Cholera, which is spread by ingestion of food or water contaminated by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium, can kill within hours if untreated.

The cholera outbreak prompted the UN last week to revise its humanitarian assessment and it now calculates 20.7 million Yemenis are in need of assistance, up from the previous figure of 18.8 million in a population of 28 million.

Oxfam has projected the number of people infected with cholera could rise to more than 600,000 — "the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year since records began" — exceeding Haiti in 2011.

Save the Children said it currently operates 14 cholera treatment centres and more than 90 rehydration units across Yemen but was scaling up its response and sending more health experts to the worst hit areas.

The charity said new analysis of district level data revealed more than one million malnourished children aged under five — including 200,000 with severe acute malnutrition — were living in cholera hotspots.

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Millions are malnourished in Yemen where famine looms, the UN says. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened in Yemen's civil war in 2015, backing government forces fighting Iran-allied Houthi rebels and fighting limits access for aid workers.

Cholera is also spreading in Somalia, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Sudan, where the World Health Organisation is about to start a vaccination campaign with 500,000 doses of oral cholera vaccine.

Despite Yemen's huge outbreak, the biggest in any country in the space of a year, the WHO said it had put off a vaccination campaign there until 2018.

"A cholera vaccination campaign originally planned for July 2017 has been postponed at the request of the health authorities, in favour of a much larger preventive campaign next year targeting millions of Yemenis at risk of the disease," the organisation said.