To treat or to feed? The difficult choice facing families in Yemen suffering from cholera

In a crowded corridor that has been turned into a cholera isolation unit, doctors move from one bed to the next, nurses bustling frantically around them, hoping that no more cases come in this afternoon. It has been an overwhelming few weeks and the pressure does not seem to cease. Amidst the outdated monitors, rows of rehydration drips, are the eyes of children, men, women and the elderly waiting desperately for some form of relief from the misery that is cholera.

Bushra (pictured above) has just started treatment at the cholera isolation unit at the Aljomhuri Hospital in Hajja, Yemen. She also suffers from anemia, a condition that she has struggled to live with despite the challenges of growing up in Yemen with ongoing conflict and food insecurity. She and her family were displaced from Alwasha district due to the conflict and difficulties coping with hardship. They moved to Hajja city with the hope of a better life.

Ahmad Ali is 55 years old and was brought to the Aljomhuri Hospital by his son. He had lost consciousness after struggling for five days with a cholera infection.

“I was unable to afford the cost of traveling from my home to the city or pay the hospital fees,” Ali explains between breaths. “My sons are unemployed and I am the only one with an income source.”

Ali had tried to fight the disease by preparing a rehydration solution at home in order to avoid any extra expenses that a hospital might charge. But he got worse, and had to be brought to the hospital to save his life.

Already gripped by a humanitarian crisis described as the world’s worst, Yemen is today facing an acute and fast spreading cholera outbreak with numbers of those infected now surpassing 590,000. The lack of a functioning health system and limited access to safe water and hygiene posses a threat to effectively controlling the spread of the disease.

Like millions of others, poverty is what stopped Ali from going to the hospital when he started experiencing cholera symptoms. He was forced to make the difficult choice between spending his daily wage – barely enough to feed his family – on food or to see a doctor. As a result, he suffered further infection in his kidney.

Hatem Hayel is one of thousands of Yemenis affected by cholera due to the ongoing conflict, poor hygiene conditions, and lack of medical care.

There are 18.8 million people in Yemen in need of humanitarian assistance, 14.5 million lacking access to safe water and sanitation services, 17 million people are food insecure, and around 2 million are displaced from their homes. After nearly three years of escalated conflict, more than half of all health facilities in Yemen are closed or are only partially functioning. The few that exist need all the resources they can get in order to remain running. Most of the staff are volunteers now, having not received consistent salaries over the last 8 months.

“This cholera outbreak is a symptom of a complex, multifaceted crisis that requires solutions beyond treating and preventing infections,” says Wael Ibrahim, the Country Director for CARE International in Yemen.

As the race to defeat the disease continues, a need to highlight the dire underlying needs that millions of Yemenis continue to face should not be undermined.

“Yemenis can no longer be forced to make a choice between crises. More needs to be done to support and strengthen the systems necessary to effectively respond.”

Learn more about CARE’s response to the crisis in Yemen >>