Waterborne diseases rage in Yemen ahead of rainy season

MSF has launched a response after a surge of acute watery diarrhea cases in almost all of Yemen’s governorates.

Basma and her daughter Abrar, 19 months, who is being treated for acute watery diarrhea at the MSF treatment center in Taiz Houban, Yemen.

Basma and her daughter Abrar, 19 months, who is being treated for acute watery diarrhea at the MSF treatment center in Taiz Houban. | Yemen 2024 © Salam Daoud/MSF

Twenty out of Yemen’s 22 governorates have seen a surge in the number of people with acute watery diarrhea, with 63,000 cases in 2024 as of May 31. Despite the limited testing capacity in the country, more than 2,700 of the cases tested came back positive for cholera.

Although acute watery diarrhea has been a recurrent disease in Yemen for years, such a surge in the number of cases poses a risk to the lives of people who already have limited access to health care.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have launched a response in eight governorates, providing medical treatment for patients, training for medical and non-medical staff, donating medical supplies, and carrying out health promotion activities.

A young boy with diarrhea is checked by a nurse in Yemen.
An MSF doctor checks the vital signs of three-and-half-year-old Mohammed in the cholera treatment center run by MSF, in Mokha district-Taiz governorate.
Yemen 2024 © Mario Fawaz/MSF

Days of worry, hours of transportation, and debt to get to a hospital

Aseela suffered from vomiting and diarrhea for four days before her mother Sila was able to make the two-hour journey to the MSF Mother and Child Hospital in Taiz Houban, in the Taiz governorate of southwestern Yemen, where we run an acute watery diarrhea treatment center.

“I had to go into debt to cover the bus transportation costs to the hospital,” said Sila. “My husband doesn’t work; we have no source of income. To put food on the table, I go to another village to ask people for flour and rice.”

I had to go into debt to cover the bus transportation costs to the hospital. My husband doesn’t work; we have no source of income. To put food on the table, I go to another village to ask people for flour and rice.

Sila, mother of an MSF patient.

One-and-a-half-year-old Amat was falling in and out of consciousness. Her fever wasn’t going down and she had diarrhea. Her mother rushed her to a health center, then another, where she was misdiagnosed and given the wrong treatment. When she didn’t improve, she was referred to MSF’s treatment center in Mokha. 

“My village is three hours away from Mokha,” said Amat’s mother. “We cannot afford the expensive cost of treatment in the nearby clinic. I lost two children: one because of a high fever. I took him to the clinic, but I could not save him. I fear the same thing will happen again.”

Meanwhile, Osama was suffering from severe dehydration and had to leave his children at home to seek health care. He traveled from Taiz governorate to nearby Ibb governorate, where MSF runs a diarrhea treatment center inside Al-Qaida Hospital in Kilo, which we support.

“It took me around an hour and a half on a tough road to make it here. I can’t afford paying for the basic medical treatment needs in a private hospital in my district,” said Osama.

Doctors attend to cholera patients in Aden, Yemen.
An MSF medical team inside one a cholera treatment center’s tent provides medical care for cholera patients in Aden.
Yemen 2024 © Athmar Mohammed/MSF

Inadequate international response to waterborne diseases

Considering the lack of funding allocated for responding to the spread of disease, many international organizations have limited resources to spare, which makes the response inadequate. MSF is one of the few organizations providing treatment to patients with acute watery diarrhea and cholera, which can kill within hours if left untreated.

In Hajjah governorate, MSF opened a 60-bed diarrhea treatment center in a school five minutes away from the Abs General Hospital, which we also support. 

“Our center is the only place providing treatment for acute watery diarrhea in this big district,” said Dr. Evangelina Lauxmann, MSF medical team leader with the Abs project. “Acute watery diarrhea, although treatable, poses a risk to patients with comorbidities and pregnant women who face an increased chance of fetal mortality.”

On top of that, the rainy season has started in many areas where we provide support, which will exacerbate the spread of this waterborne disease from contaminated water sources. 

Pediatric patients and their caregivers in an Aden hospital in Yemen.
The 70-bed cholera treatment center run by MSF is operating at capacity trying to help patients in Aden.
Yemen 2024 © Mario Fawaz/MSF

Medical facilities struggle to cope with rising number of patients

In collaboration with the health authorities, we run the only cholera treatment center in Aden, equipped with 70 beds and located inside the MSF-supported Al-Sadaqa Hospital. The center is running at full capacity while the number of patients is steadily increasing.

“There is a significant need for additional actions to counter the rising numbers,” said Federica Franco, MSF head of mission in Yemen. “We emphasize the importance of preventative measures such as the provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene practices, as well as extensive health promotion efforts to effectively address this situation.”  

In many areas where MSF is responding, if the number of patients exceeds our ability to treat them, we face the challenge of finding and training medical, paramedical, and logistical staff to maintain patient treatment activities. 

Without wide-scale water and sanitation activities in the most affected governorates, and in the absence of community outreach activities for sensitization on proper hygiene practices and early detection, the surge of acute watery diarrhea cases is expected to return in waves over the coming months.

An MSF worker outside of a cholera treatment center in Yemen.
The MSF cholera treatment center in Aden city, Yemen.
Yemen 2024 © Mario Fawaz/MSF

More about our work in Yemen

MSF has been working in Yemen continuously since 2007. Between April and May this year, MSF treated more than 10,500 patients in different parts of Yemen.

In Taiz governorate, in collaboration with the health authorities, MSF runs two diarrhea treatment centers: in Taiz Houban, inside the MSF-supported Mother and Child Hospital; and in Taiz city, inside the MSF-supported Al-Jumhouri Hospital. We opened a cholera treatment unit in Mafraq and set up a cholera treatment center in Mokha  inside MSF’s field hospital.

We also operate acute watery diarrhea treatment centers in Al-Wehda Hospital in Dhamar governorate and in a charity center in Ad-Dahi, Al-Hudaydah governorate.