In Capital City Ravaged by Cholera, Patients Eat Breadcrumbs

SANAA, Yemen — A mother cradles her little boy under a tree outside the Sabeen Children’s Hospital in Sanaa. They’re just a few steps from the hospital’s entrance, but there is no room for them inside.

Instead, doctors have resorted to treating the boy under a tree, inserting a drip into his arm and hanging a bag of life-saving fluids from a branch above before returning to other patients inside.

His mother, father and brother crowd around him — they are his doctors for now.

Yemen is battling a cholera epidemic, and on Monday Save the Children said that 242 people had already died during the first three weeks of the outbreak.

According to the charity, more than 65,000 cases are expected by the end of June based on current rates, with two out of every three cases involving children under the age of 15.

Inside the hospital another mother, Fannah Mohammad, sits on the floor in the corridor, her two daughters’ heads in her lap. They are being treated for cholera, and she’s trying desperately to look after them.

This mother of five fears her whole family could be infected.

“I fainted as I was walking with my sick children to the hospital,” the 39-year-old mother tells CNN. “We are sick, my children were about to die from sickness while all of us can’t find any food to eat.”

Ismael Mansoori, one of few doctors on duty at the hospital, keeps a watchful eye over Fannah and her daughters when he can, but this hospital is overwhelmed.

‘A turning point’

Mansoori says he receives new patients with suspected cholera every day. And in just two hours on Saturday he received 200 potential cases.

“The epidemic has reached a turning point,” he says. “We have a shortage of all medical goods and hospital space. Every three patients have to share a bed in our facilities.”

The 42-year-old doctor says the majority of those who have been infected by cholera are women.

The cholera outbreak in Houthi-controlled Sanaa is just the latest worry in a country ravaged by a civil war that has brought with it disease and hunger.

“After my husband lost his job two years ago, we can’t find even food to eat and feed our children,” Fannah Mohammad says.

“Once a day, we mix bread crumbs with water and eat with my children. That’s only on lucky days. On most occasions we sleep without eating an entire day. But we are better off than other families. We are thankful we are still alive.”

Just outside the overcrowded hospital, piles and piles of garbage litter the sidewalk. Deteriorating sanitation in the city is in part to blame for the spread of cholera.

Municipal workers, who haven’t been paid in months, are on strike so the garbage lies untouched, polluting the streets — and the water.

A broken system

“The health situation is typical of the heavy tolls that this conflict has taken on the whole country, on its people, but also on the system — the health, water, sanitation system,” Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told CNN from Yemen.

“Health workers, doctors, nurses have not been paid for more than eight months and the whole system is of course overflowing, especially now with cholera.”

Mansoori, the doctor from Sabeen Children’s Hospital’s, echoes that view, clearly frustrated he can’t stop more people from dying from preventable diseases. Cholera is, after all, survivable and comparatively easy to treat if done quickly — but only if you have access to inexpensive rehydration fluids and treatment.

Abdul Hakim AlKhulani, spokesperson for the Yemen Health Ministry, says medical supplies there are completely depleted and that 80 tons of medical aid is stuck in Djibouti because of a blockade imposed by a Saudi-led coaltion that is fighting the Houthis. “The international community must react and help save Yemen from one of the worst medical epidemics in the world today,” he says.