World Health Organization not sending cholera vaccines to Yemen

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The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday that there was no chance the agency would attempt to vaccinate Yemen against cholera due to the fact that the disease has spread so widely there that such an effort would be fruitless. This is a U-turn on a decision made by the organization a month ago. On June 15th this year, the WHO had decided to send one million doses of cholera vaccine to Yemen in collaboration with some other partners. This was following a request from Yemen’s internationally recognized government. This new decision revokes the earlier plans.

According to Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the organization, said that the vaccine dosages that were prepared for Yemen would not be shipped to other parts of the world where there is still a high risk of cholera. He reiterated that this decision was not final but there was little chance that Yemen would receive those vaccines. Instead they would be sent to “other areas/countries who may need them more urgently right now”, he added. Mr. Lindmeier was speaking at a regular news briefing at the United Nations headquarters complex in Geneva.

At present Yemen is gripped with a cholera outbreak of massive proportions. The number of cases has crossed 313,000 and over 1700 persons have already died of this highly infective disease. This decision was met with surprise as a consequence. Yemen has been battling civil wars for over two years between a Saudi-led military coalition and Houthi insurgents backed by Iran. This unrest is already responsible for killing 10,000 people leading to severe damage to the healthcare system. Thousands of residents face famine and rise of infective diseases in Yemen that is considered to be the poorest country in the Arab world.

Cholera is a bacterial infection that spreads through contaminated water and hands from human waste that comes from an infected person. Cholera spreads rapidly and leads to intense cases of vomiting and diarrhoea that can lead to severe dehydration in the patient within a span of a very short time. This dehydration may be fatal if not corrected especially in children and in the elderly. Vaccines may help protect individuals who are at risk before an outbreak occurs.

Mr. Lindmeier explained the organization’s decision by saying that vaccination campaigns are usually effective in normal countries that are not ravaged by war and uncertainties. The security situation in Yemen is out of control making vaccination efforts difficult and to an extent impossible. He added that, “Medical workers are not even sure what parts of the country would benefit from it”. Cholera now has affected all 21 governorates in Yemen at present. The vaccines need to reach places where the outbreaks are yet to start. However most of these areas in Yemen are remote and are rife with conflict that has made access to them even more difficult.

The vaccine campaigns need to be “ahead of an outbreak” he explained. With failing healthcare system, lack of access to food, clean drinking water, a vaccination effort would be ineffective. Those need to be addressed before vaccinations he added. He explained that cholera vaccines are difficult to administer even in countries that are at peace. The vaccines are delicate and need to be stored in cold storage. They fail to work unless the patients have received the follow-up vaccination after the first one.

The World Health Organization’s new director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, would be briefing the United Nations Security Council regarding the situation in Yemen today via video conference.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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