LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Escalating violence in Yemen has devastated the country’s health system and exposed millions of children to the threat of preventable diseases including measles, pneumonia and diarrhea, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.
Since fighting intensified in March, many hospitals and health centers have been unable to function properly and vaccination services have been disrupted, according to UNICEF.
Health centers lack the electricity and fuel needed to distribute vaccines and keep them cold, while the fear of conflict is deterring parents from taking their children to receive vaccinations, the U.N. agency said.
A Saudi-led alliance has been carrying out air raids in Yemen for almost three months to try to restore exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and repel Houthi fighters, who they regard as proxies for their regional arch rival Iran.
The death toll has soared since the fighting escalated in March. At least 279 children have been killed and 402 injured since late March - four times the number reported in the whole of 2014, UNICEF said.
“Around 280 children have been killed directly in the conflict – that is very tragic in its own right,” UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa Peter Salama told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“But what is even more tragic is that hundreds of thousands more children might die if the conflict continues, and they will be largely due to preventable infectious diseases combined with malnutrition,” Salama said by phone from Amman.
UNICEF said the interruption to vaccination services had left 2.6 million children under 15 at risk of measles, while 1.3 million have been exposed to acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia since the conflict escalated in March.
Some 2.5 million children are at risk of diarrhea - an increase of one million since the conflict broke out - due to poor sanitation and a lack of safe water.
More than half a million children under five are also at risk of developing severe and acute malnutrition in the next year if the situation continues to deteriorate, UNICEF said.
UNICEF has set up mobile health and nutrition teams and localized vaccination campaigns in the worst-affected areas of the impoverished country.
Eighty percent of Yemen’s population - some 20 million people, half of whom are children - need humanitarian aid, according to UNICEF.
The United Nations earlier this month launched a revised humanitarian appeal for $1.6 billion to deal with a “looming catastrophe”. Some $186 million - 12 percent - of the appeal has been funded to date.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org