Yemen’s healthcare system on the brink of collapse

Text and photos: Julie Lorenzen, Danish Red Cross

His brown eyes look tired – almost absent – and the skin is way too pale. He speaks with a voice that is difficult to hear.

Nine-year-old Luai and his mother are visiting a primary health clinic, run by Yemen Red Crescent Society in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

Luai has been sick for a while with a fever that shows no sign of abating.

“His body is weak. He was fine, when he was little, but then his body started to weaken. I am worried, he cannot fight diseases,” says his mother Fatima.

Doctor Anisha examines the little boy and it does not take her long to conclude that he is malnourished and has anemia. There is also a risk that Luai is suffering from internal parasites, a condition common in many Yemeni children.

Doctor Anisha prescribes iron and multivitamins. That is all she can do.

But this visit to the clinic is a short-term solution. When Luai goes home, his parents can only afford to buy rice and bread because of the sky rocketing food prices in Sanaa. Vegetables are a luxury the family can only afford once a month - like so many other Yemeni families who suffer from the impacts of the 5-year long conflict.

Lack of medicine and doctors

According to doctor Anisha who has worked in the clinic for 17 years, Luai’s story is sadly familiar.

“Five years ago, we did not see many cases of malnutrition”, she says.

“But now there are cases in all health clinics around the country. I am worried because it affects their ability to learn in school. We only see the mild cases in this clinic.”

Doctor Anisha also sees many malnourished pregnant women which can lead to complications like low birth weight and premature births.

According to UN OCHA 3,2 million women and children in Yemen are acutely malnourished - the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition has increased by 90% in the last three years.

And it is not only malnutrition the children suffer from.

“We see that diseases like measles, diphtheria and chicken pox have returned. They were not present before the conflict,” says doctor Anisha.

She used to vaccinate the children, but the clinic can no longer provide this vital service. The vaccinations need to be stored in a cold place, but because of the lack of electricity and fuel, this is no longer an option.

It is the same story with the X-ray machine which has not been working since the beginning of the conflict. And the ultrasound scanner has been silent for the last year, since the clinic cannot afford to pay salary to an ultrasound doctor who can operate it.

Doctor Anisha is the only doctor to help the approximately 40 patients who come to the clinic every day.

“We need more doctors and nurses in the clinic,” she says, adding:

“And we need medicine to treat patients with hypertension and diabetes. We can check their blood pressure and blood sugar, but we cannot give them medicine. Medicine is the most important.”

The clinic has a laboratory, but currently they cannot carry out liver, kidney and cholesterol tests because of lack of equipment. Today it is free for the patients to get tests done in the laboratory, but in the future, the clinic might be forced to demand payment.

It is not going to be easy for the patients.

“Our patients are poor,” says doctor Anisha.

Stay and risk your own life

Many doctors and nurses have fled from the conflict in Yemen. But not Doctor Anisha.

“The future is horrible. If you stay here, you are killing yourself. But I stay and do my best. I cannot leave my patients here. I would feel bad, if they came and asked for me, and I wasn’t there.”

“We help people the best we can.”

According to UN OCHA an estimated 19.7 million people in Yemen lack access to basic healthcare.

But only 51% of the health facilities are functioning.

The Yemen Red Crescent Society currently runs 22 health facilities around the country.

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