Aid agencies ramp up efforts to contain COVID-19, as UN warns of possible surge in cases
Aid agencies have expressed their deep concern over the presence, and the potential for the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Yemen. Until 29 April when five cases were confirmed in Aden, Yemen has been an outlier in the Eastern Mediterranean region with, the first laboratory confirmed case of COVID-19 declared on 10 April in Hadramaut. At the start of May, Taizz and Aden reported two cases in each location. The United Nations and its front-line partners continue to advocate for the steps that need to be taken, to provide guidance, and to support the health authorities to suppress transmission; to prepare and equip designated COVID hospitals and isolation units; to secure supplies; to identify and treat people with the virus; and to inform the public about the virus and how people can protect themselves.
“The threat of COVID-19 is so terrifying we have to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus and help the people who may become infected,” said Ms. Lise Grande, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen in a statement on 23 April. The factors are all here, low levels of general immunity, high levels of acute vulnerability and a fragile, overwhelmed health system,” she added in another statement on 28 April.
Based on transmission patterns of the virus in other countries, and the elapse of twenty days since the first case was declared, the UN has warned there is now a very real probability that the virus has been circulating undetected and unmitigated within communities. This increases the likelihood of a surge of cases which may quickly overwhelm health capacities.
The UN has emphasized the need for swift action and the implementation of specific measures. “There’s no time to lose. People have to be informed accurately and quickly about what is happening so they can do what’s necessary to protect themselves and their families,” Ms. Grande said in the statement of 28 April. “The record is clear,” Mr. Altaf Musani, WHO Representative in Yemen, cautioned, “In countries where people are aware and warned, and where there is testing, tracing and isolation measures, transmission of the virus has been interrupted.” In line with the International Health Regulations (article VI), announcing and managing any potential threat to global health security, including disease, is the responsibility of national authorities.
WHO has operationalized 333 Rapid Response Teams. These five-person teams, established in each of Yemen’s 333 districts in response to cholera, have been repurposed to help detect and respond to suspected COVID-19 cases. WHO plans on tripling the number of these teams to 999 to reinforce detection and response capacities. It is also working with partners to repurpose 26 Emergency Operations Centres, established at the height of the cholera epidemic, to address COVID-19.
In addition, WHO is equipping and upgrading specialized isolation units in the 37 hospitals designated by the authorities for COVID-19 response and has secured specialized medical equipment amid fierce global competition. It has already distributed 520 intensive care units (ICU) beds and 208 ventilators; another 1,000 ICU beds and 400 ventilators, are to be transported to Yemen and distributed as soon as conditions allow.
Over the past two months, WHO has purchased and distributed more than 6,700 testing kits. It has secured 32,400 more testing kits to be transported and distributed in coming weeks. Despite a global shortage, it is aggressively trying to secure personal protective equipment to meet the expected needs for the next six months.
WHO and other humanitarian partners have trained nearly 900 health personnel on rapid response, infection control, case management, psychological first aid and helping children cope with stress. In addition, UNICEF has been training 10,000 community volunteers, whose role is to educate communities on transmission patterns, detection and prevention methods. They have reached communities across Yemen with awareness-raising and materials and established hotline numbers to enable suspected cases to be reported.