17 August 2017 – In the midst of the cholera outbreak in Yemen, where an average 5,000 people fall sick every day, the United Nations population agency is warning about the dangers to pregnant and breastfeeding women.
“Pregnant and breastfeeding women, especially those who are malnourished, are particularly vulnerable. An estimated 1.1 million malnourished pregnant women are at risk, requiring immediate care,” the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) recently said.
One of these women is Ibtisam, who contracted cholera when she was nine months pregnant.
“I went to a health facility in my hometown in Rayma Governorate, but they did not know what was wrong with me,” she told UNFPA. “I felt I was going to die and lose my baby. I was going to have my first child, and I was desperate not to lose my child.”
Pregnant and breastfeeding women are especially vulnerable to malnutrition, and those weakened by the nutrition crisis are more prone to infections, including cholera.
Ibtisam and her husband then travelled five hours to the nearest hospital in the capital, Sana'a, where she was diagnosed and treated for cholera.
“Ibitsam was in her last month of pregnancy. If she [arrived] a day or two later, we are not sure we could have saved her or her baby,” Dr. Farea, who helped treat her, told the UN agency.
UNFPA has said that the cholera crisis in Yemen is the worst in the world, and its magnitude is linked to the ongoing conflict and displacement crisis, the breakdown of health and sanitation systems, and serious food insecurity.
Women as agents of change
While among the most vulnerable, women can also play a key role in controlling the spread of cholera because they are traditionally tasked with preparing food. Cholera often spreads through contaminated food or water.
“If women are made aware about the steps they can take to prevent cholera and detect its symptoms at an early stage, we can save a lot of lives,” Dr. Farea said.
Aman'a, a 35-year-old mother of five, told UNFAP that was aware of the need for good hygiene, but hardship conditions have made disease prevention difficult.
“At home, I take all the precautions when preparing food, and make sure my children follow the same. Yet I was infected after visiting one of my relatives,” she said. “I try to tell my friends and family to maintain good hygiene and wash fruits and vegetables with clean water several times before cooking.”
The UN agency said it has stepped up efforts to assist women and girls in Yemen, distributing dignity kits – which contain soap, sanitary napkins and basic clothes – and supporting midwives, mobile clinics and community outreach.