NPR One Extra: The Global Effort To Combat Yemen's 'Unprecedented' Cholera Outbreak

Jun 9, 2017

If you live in the United States, contracting cholera is probably not a top concern, but in war-torn Yemen an outbreak of the deadly disease affecting over 100,000 people is about to get worse.

As of June 7, 2017, "the number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen continues to rise, reaching 101,820 with 791 deaths," so far, according to a joint press release from UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The outbreak adds urgency to the work of scientists who are looking for a cure, like those at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Juliette Touma, UNICEF’s Chief of Communications for the Middle East and North Africa, recently returned to her office in Jordan after visiting hospitals in Yemen.

Touma says UNICEF has been responding to the "unprecedented" outbreak over the last few weeks.

"Everyone's exhausted really," says Touma of those on the ground. "Everyone is really sick. The children ... that we met were barely breathing. There was this one time child that we saw that we were not sure if he was alive or dead."

As Cholera Spreads In Yemen, Dartmouth Researchers Seek A Modern Cure from VPR

Touma says those suffering from the disease are "just tired, exhausted of dehydration, of acute watery diarrhea, of being forced to travel for days on end before getting to get treatment."

The infrastructure and government systems that normally prevent such outbreaks have been degraded by years of armed conflict in Yemen. The country has been in an on-going civil war since 2014, which has contributed to the conditions that allow cholera to spread.

Touma those factors led to "harrowing" scenes around Yemen.

"We shouldn't be witnessing these scenes [in] the 21st century," she said.

Children in Yemen, many of whom were already suffering from malnutrition, are among those being most effected by the cholera outbreak.
Credit UNICEF, courtesy

What is Cholera?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines cholera as "an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae." According to CDC estimates, there are 3 to 5 million cases of the disease every year.

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If treated quickly, and with access to clean water supplies, cholera is not necessarily fatal. However, the rapid loss of body fluid can lead to dehydration and can kill within hours.

During the 1800s, millions of people died of cholera around the world.

Why is the outbreak spreading so rapidly in Yemen?

According to UNICEF, realities on the ground in Yemen are making  it challenging to contain the outbreak.

In the June 8 press release, UNICEF says in addition to the sluggish flow of medical supplies to the area, "the country’s health system has been nearly destroyed by more than two years of intense conflict. Less than half of the country’s health centres are fully functional."

And children, many of whom were already suffering from malnutrition, are among those being most affected.

The outbreak started in late April.