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December 4, 2018

Lack of Preparedness and Insecurity Hampered Response to Cholera Epidemic in Yemen

Analysis by researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health identifies 20 top recommendations to mitigate future cholera outbreaks in Yemen and other humanitarian emergencies, including call for end of attacks on health, water and sanitation infrastructure.
 

Between April 27, 2017 and July 1, 2018, more than one million suspected cases of cholera in two waves were reported in Yemen, which had been declared a high-level emergency by the United Nations in 2015. Humanitarian organizations implemented a robust response to cholera despite numerous challenges including famine-like conditions, active civil conflict and destroyed health infrastructure within a shrinking humanitarian space in Yemen.

Prior to the outbreak, Yemen did not have a sufficient cholera preparedness and response plan in place despite previous cholera outbreaks, endemicity of cholera in the region and active conflict, according to a new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, which is based in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This lack of preparedness, in addition to extreme insecurity, resulted in gaps in disease surveillance, insufficient ability to reach conflict-affected populations and social mobilization interventions, and delays in evaluating the use of the oral cholera vaccine, among other obstacles, found the researchers.

The new report, “Cholera in Yemen: a case study of epidemic preparedness and response,” calls for better anticipation of and preparedness for epidemics in complex humanitarian emergencies with weakened public health systems. Recommendations include technical components, such as boosting the presence of peripheral laboratories to confirm cholera cases combined with improved surveillance in order to better monitor the outbreaks, to the humanitarian, such as improving coordination and requesting the UN to adopt a stronger stance on the protection of both health facilities as well as water and sanitation infrastructure from airstrikes.

“We largely know ‘what to do’ to control cholera, but context-specific practices on ‘how to do it’ in order to surmount challenges to coordination, logistics, insecurity, access and politics remain needed,” the report states.

“The cholera response in Yemen remains extremely complicated, with no easy fixes,” says Paul Spiegel, MD, MPH, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health and the report’s lead author. “Humanitarian access in Yemen is extremely limited, and the humanitarian community did well in a very difficult and insecure environment. Our goal was to produce meaningful recommendations for how to better prepare for future cholera outbreaks in Yemen and other emergency-prone countries, taking into account the extreme limitations of working in Yemen during an active conflict.”

For their report, the authors conducted an extensive literature review of global cholera guidance and key informant interviews with practitioners, donors and technical experts involved in the response in Yemen. Among the 20 top recommendations made:

“Lessons learned from the first and second waves of the cholera epidemic are already being applied in the current cholera outbreak,” says Spiegel. “Areas such as coordination, decentralization of services, decisive use of oral cholera vaccine­ when appropriate, flexible funding, improved surveillance and improved integration of WASH and health services will serve as important aspects to address for future cholera control in extreme and complex environments similar to Yemen.”

The report is available online: http://www.hopkinshumanitarianhealth.org/empower/resources/reports/cholera-in-yemen-a-case-study-of-epidemic-preparedness-and-response/

“Cholera in Yemen: a case study of epidemic preparedness and response,” was written by:

Paul B. Spiegel MD, MPH
Professor, Department of International Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health

Ruwan Ratnayake MHS, FETP
Epidemiologist

Nora Hellman RN, MPH
Research Associate, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Daniele S. Lantagne PhD, PE
Public Health Engineer

Mija Ververs MSc, MPH
Senior Associate, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Moise Ngwa PhD, MPH, MSc
Assistant Scientist, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Paul H. Wise MD, MPH
Richard E. Behrman Professor of Child Health and Society and Professor of Pediatrics, Stanford University

This report was funded by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), supported by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

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Media contacts: Brandon Howard at 410-502-9059 or brandonhoward@jhu.edu and Barbara Benham at 410-614-6029 or bbenham1@jhu.edu.