AL-MUKALLA: The World Health Organization has increased distribution of vital medical gear and test kits and placed health teams on heightened alert to help Yemen’s fragile health system cope with the potential outbreak of COVID-19, the organization’s representative in Yemen Altaf Musani said.
“We need to ensure that we are prepared locally. Yemen currently has no cases of COVID-19, but we are scaling up preparedness and response efforts in the event a case is confirmed,” Musani told Arab News in an email interview.
Despite confirmation from local and international health officials that the war-torn country has not yet recorded a single case of the virus, the UN official warned that the virus could overwhelm Yemen’s understaffed and poorly equipped health facilities.
“Health system is functioning at 50 percent of its capacity in Yemen,” Musani said. “If the public does not understand what COVID-19 is and how to protect themselves, an introduction of the disease here will overrun hospitals and health facilities and pull health care workers away from people who are severely ill and in need of treatment.”
The WHO, along with the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, are part of the government-led committee tasked with handling preparations for the virus. Inside Houthi-controlled territories, the WHO is also cooperating with health officials to make sure that facilities are able to stem the spread of the disease.
“The WHO has ensured that surveillance and laboratory preparedness are in place,”
Musani said. “The PCR thermocycler at the central public health laboratory in Sanaa and another in Aden have been calibrated, and a test run was performed to ensure COVID-19 can be detected.”
He added that the WHO has helped local health authorities in Al-Mukalla calibrate another PCR machine.
Musani said that 200 tests had already been delivered to Sanaa, while 300 were delivered to Aden.
Rumors quickly circulated on social media about new cases of the virus in Yemen, fueling mass hysteria and prompting the WHO to establish a team to investigate.
“Over 1,600 health workers forming 333 health rapid response teams are actively investigating rumors on COVID-19 cases,” Musani said. “The WHO and UNICEF’s Communication for Development are also collaborating on rumor-tracking. These teams have been trained in surveillance, case investigation, case reporting, contact listing and contact tracing.”
The UN has characterized the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as the worst in the world. Most of the country’s population is in dire need of assistance and protection. The health system could not cope with outbreaks of dengue fever, cholera and other diseases. The arrival of COVID-19 to Yemen would exacerbate the situation, according to Musani.
“Half of health facilities and hospitals across the country cannot be counted on because they don’t exist. Over 60 percent of the 333 districts in Yemen are considered vulnerable. In a population of 30 million, 18 million are considered severely vulnerable and lacking access to health services and healthcare,” Musani said.
Over the last several days, Yemen’s government in Aden has taken further measures to prevent the spread of the disease, including the closure of schools, airports and recently mosques. Weddings and other cultural events have been banned.
The UN official hailed any effort by Yemen authorities to help contain the spread of the virus.
“Since COVID-19 took center stage globally, the WHO here in Yemen has been vigilant in supporting the local health authorities across the country by taking urgent and essential measures such as screening people at points of entry. We are rapidly scaling up our preparedness to fight COVID-19 should it cross over and into Yemen,” Musani said.