By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) is closing most of its 37 cholera treatment centers in Yemen, saying the epidemic appears to have peaked.
Some 884,368 suspected cholera cases have been recorded in the war-torn country in the past six months, including 2,184 deaths, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO). The case fatality rate is now 0.25 percent.
“The number of cholera cases reported in MSF treatment centers has significantly decreased since the peak of the outbreak. As a result, the medical organization is closing the majority of its cholera treatment centers or reducing their capacity,” MSF said in a statement late on Monday.
Some 567 new patients sought treatment for suspected cholera at MSF’s centers in nine governorates of Yemen during the second week of October, down from 11,139 at the peak in the third week in June, it said.
“Only 9 percent of patients admitted by MSF last week needed to be hospitalized and a limited number of patients have symptoms that correspond with the cholera case definition (acute watery diarrhea with or without vomiting),” it said. “The remaining cases are believed to be due to other pathogens.”
Ghassan Abou Chaar, MSF head of mission in Yemen, said: “The cholera outbreak is not over but it is no longer our medical priority in Yemen. However, this should not eclipse the dire health situation of millions of Yemenis who are unable to access basic primary healthcare.”
Civil war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people since it began in March 2015. Yemen’s war pits the armed Houthi movement that controls the capital against the internationally-recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition that has launched thousands of air strikes to restore him to power.
Cholera epidemics usually subside once the disease passes through a population, but aid agencies say the Yemen epidemic lasted longer and spread wider than they initially expected because of the war’s toll on health care.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said on Sunday that an aid effort by the World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and other agencies had managed to “largely contain the devastating cholera epidemic”, but warned it could flare up again without urgent investment in health, water and sanitation.
ICRC said last month that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is a “catastrophe”, and cholera cases could reach a million by the end of the year.
Alexandre Faite, head of the ICRC delegation in Yemen, said at the time that the “health sector is really on its knees in Yemen … the health staff is on its knees as well because they are not paid.”
“Preventable illnesses and deaths are increasing in Yemen, and this can be partly attributed to the salary crisis,” MSF said, noting that doctors, nurses and other public health workers had not been paid in 13 months.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)