A deadly cholera outbreak in Yemen could continue indefinitely without an end to the civil war, says a bishop in the region who has pleaded for the faithful to pray and for an end to arms sales to the parties.
“As I believe in the power of prayer, I can only ask the faithful around the world, to keep in mind the suffering people in Yemen — Muslims as well as the few remaining Christians, including the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa.” Bishop Paul Hinder told CNA Aug. 8.
Bishop Hinder heads the Abu Dhabi-based Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which serves Catholics in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen. The Church in Yemen is “a tiny group without any structure” that can do little in the face of the situation, he said.
A cholera outbreak provoked by the war has infected a suspected 350,000 people, with over 1,800 people dying from the disease. Over 600,000 could be infected by the end of the year, the International Committee of the Red Cross has said. The latest outbreak began in April. Within a few hours of infection, the disease causes vomiting and diarrhea, leading to severe dehydration that can be deadly without rapid intervention. At the same time, most cases can be treated with simple rehydration treatments. Even simple treatments are hard to come by.
More than 3 million people have been displaced since the conflict began in March 2015. Over 20 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. Revenue shortfalls mean 1 million civil servants, including 30,000 medical staffers, have gone unpaid since September. About 45 percent of the country’s hospitals are operating, and only 30 percent of the needed medical supplies can reach the country.
Bishop Hinder stressed the difficulties the war is causing. “We all should know that the blockade of the country hinders the reconstruction of the destroyed sanitary system in the country,” he said. “As long as the minimal infrastructure in many parts of the country is not functioning, we cannot expect that the cholera can be stopped, other sick people get the proper treatment, and the starving people be fed properly.” “Whatever help is possible through the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and other reliable channels remains limited as long as sufficient security is not guaranteed,” he added.
The Yemeni civil war involves the internationally recognized government, and its Saudi-led coalition allies, fighting Shiite Houthi rebels. “We have to keep in mind that in the Yemen conflict there are no pure angels on one side and pure devils on the other,” Bishop Hinder continued. “Without bringing people again around the table and getting to a cease-fire, there will be only killing and destruction with disastrous consequences for the civilian population and the country as a whole.”
“I think that the people in the so-called West should be aware that their powers are not innocent in what is going on in Yemen,” he said. “The deal of the present U.S. administration with Saudi Arabia regarding weapons will not help to make peace.” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, similarly stressed that countering the outbreak depends on peace.
“The great tragedy is that this cholera outbreak is a preventable, man-made humanitarian catastrophe. It is a direct consequence of a conflict that has devastated civilian infrastructure and brought the whole health system to its knees,” Maurer said July 23. "Further deaths can be prevented, but warring parties must ease restrictions and allow the import of medicines, food and essential supplies and they must show restraint in the way they conduct warfare.”
U.N. agencies were caught by surprise at how fast the disease spread, George Khoury, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, told the Associated Press. After an initial mild outbreak in October appeared to have ended, funds had been cut and health monitors put their attention elsewhere.
“It’s a cholera paradise,” Khoury said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
In March 2016 an attack on a Missionaries of Charity house in Aden left four sisters dead. The attackers kidnapped Indian-born Salesian priest Father Tom Uzhunnalil. The priest’s whereabouts are not known, and no groups have claimed responsibility for his capture. An unauthenticated video posted to YouTube in May of this year showed him with a sign dated April 15, 2017. He appeared thin, with overgrown hair and a beard. The priest appealed for his release and claimed his health was rapidly deteriorating.