The first-ever cholera vaccination campaign has been launched in Yemen as authorities battle to contain what has become the biggest outbreak of the disease in the history of the world.
The campaign covers just four “hot” districts which are at a particularly high risk of an outbreak and fast spread of the disease, said the World Health Organization.
But WHO and its partners, including Unicef and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, still do not have access to the whole country and just 350,000 people, including pregnant women, will be vaccinated in this current campaign.
Michael Ryan, WHO assistant director-general, said the organisation was “ready to move” as soon as approvals were in place.
“We have plans in place for extending that to all of the at-risk zones and we are still negotiating with health authorities in the north of the country, in Sanaa, in order to plan those campaigns,” he said.
More than 1.1 million people – a third of whom were children under the age of four – fell ill last year, in what has been billed as the biggest outbreak of cholera in history.
The epidemic peaked in July when there were around 50,000 new cases of the disease a week. But while the outbreak is no longer at epidemic levels WHO figures show that there were more than 13,000 cases of the disease in March.
There was no cholera vaccination campaign last year because of the volatile political situation. Around three million people have been displaced in the civil war which has been raging in the country since 2015 and the WHO says that around half of the country’s health facilities are no longer functioning.
Researchers have warned that the current rainy season – which began in mid-April and usually lasts until the end of August – will trigger another spike, with conservative estimates suggesting that millions of people will be at risk of infection if the disease spreads uninterrupted.
WHO said that Yemen’s “volatile mix of conflict, a deteriorating economic situation, and little to no access to clean drinking water and sanitation” have compounded the outbreak. And it described its response as a “race against time”.