DUBAI/GENEVA • Yemen's cholera epidemic has reached one million suspected cases, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday, with war leaving more than 80 per cent of the population short of food, fuel, clean water and access to healthcare.
Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest countries, is embroiled in a proxy war between the Houthi armed movement, allied with Iran, and a US-backed military coalition headed by Saudi Arabia.
The United Nations says Yemen is suffering the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and eight million people are on the brink of famine.
The cholera figure is almost certainly exaggerated, but that does not diminish the scale and complexity of the humanitarian crisis, said Mr Marc Poncin, Yemen emergency coordinator for aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières.
Cholera flared up in April and spread rapidly, killing 2,227 people. The death rate has fallen dramatically and, without laboratory confirmation, recent cases are probably diarrhoea, Mr Poncin said.
A new wave of cholera is expected in March or April.
"It's probably unavoidable. We need to be ready to face another big epidemic," said Mr Poncin, adding that cholera may become a long-term burden as it has in Haiti.
RISK OF EPIDEMIC
It's probably unavoidable. We need to be ready to face another big epidemic ...The places where the war is active are the ones most at risk for increase of disease.
MR MARC PONCIN, Yemen emergency coordinator for aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières.
"The places where the war is active are the ones most at risk for increase of disease."
The war-torn Arab country has also been suffering from a severe diphtheria outbreak since October.
The disease, which has not been seen in Yemen for 25 years, has affected 312 people and killed 35.
It has not spread explosively, as cholera did, but diphtheria outbreaks can affect many thousands, and there is a global shortage of diphtheria anti-toxin.
Yemen has enough for 200 to 500 patients, Mr Poncin said.
An urgent diphtheria vaccination campaign early next year will complicate the World Health Organisation's hope of doing mass cholera vaccination at the same time, especially given the problems with security and accessing remote areas, Mr Poncin added.
The Houthis, who control much of the country, are also suspicious of vaccination drives, he said.
Ships and planes carrying humanitarian supplies have been unable to reach Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition imposed a blockade early last month.
The military coalition, which has been fighting the Houthi rebels since March 2015 to support the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has blocked land, sea and air access to Yemen after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile launched by the Houthis towards the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Nov 4.
The coalition eased the siege late last month, reopening some ports in the south of the country. But UN aid agencies said the move was not enough, and want a complete reopening of all Yemeni ports, including Hodeidah port, the only port to northern Yemen, which is under Houthi control.
On Wednesday, despite a fresh missile attack on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia said it would allow the port of Hodeidah, vital for aid, to stay open for a month.