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In Yemen, deaths with coronavirus-like symptoms spike as hospitals shut down

A health worker takes the temperature of people riding a taxi van on May 9, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease in Sanaa, Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

CAIRO — The number of people dying with covid-19 symptoms has dramatically spiked in war-riven Yemen, triggering fears that coronavirus infections are considerably higher than official figures, the Save the Children charity said Thursday.

 At least 385 people have died over the past week with coronavirus-like symptoms in the southern port city of Aden, the group said, citing Yemeni officials.

As of Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases in Aden of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was 41, with five deaths, according to official figures. Nationwide, the World Health Organization says there are 72 confirmed cases, with 13 deaths.

The sharp discrepancy in numbers is due at least in part to the dire lack of testing for the virus available in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country. Only 803 tests have been conducted so far, and test kits are already running out, said Erin Taylor, a Save the Children spokesperson.

In northern areas of the country, controlled by Houthi rebels, only a handful of cases have been reported, but the lack of testing means the number of infected there is suspected to be higher, said Taylor.

In Aden, health workers are afraid to go to hospitals due to the lack of protective equipment and cannot do the necessary referrals or test patients coming in with coronavirus symptoms. Over the past week, hundreds of patients have died after showing symptoms such as respiratory difficulties and fever. Several hospitals have shuttered.

“Covid-19 is pushing this country even further into the abyss,” said Xavier Joubert, Yemen country director for Save the Children, in a statement. “The surging deaths in Aden suggest that the virus is spreading far faster and further than the number of confirmed cases. Hospitals are closing down and patients [are] being turned away or left to die.”

For more than five years, Yemen has been gripped by a conflict between the Iran-aligned Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which is backed by a United States-supported Saudi-led coalition of regional countries. Despite several attempts at a cease-fire, the fighting has not stopped, even as the coronavirus outbreak emerged.

The war has deepened a humanitarian crisis that is now considered the world’s most severe. Roughly 24 million people, or 80 percent of the population, rely on aid, and millions are on the edge of starvation, their immune systems weakened.

Yemen’s health infrastructure has been battered by the conflict, with hospitals and clinics targeted by airstrikes and shelling. Only half the nation’s health facilities are now operational. There are only 500 ventilators in the country, and just four labs able to do coronavirus testing, according to Save the Children.

The number of Yemenis possibly infected by the coronavirus is expected to rise as facilities to treat them shrink. The two main public hospitals in Aden remain open but are only offering emergency services, treating patients with fever but not those showing respiratory symptoms, said Save the Children.

Most of Aden’s private hospitals have also closed or are only treating chronic cases without respiratory symptoms or fever, said the group.

“Our teams on the ground are seeing how people are being sent away from hospitals, breathing heavily or even collapsing,” said Mohammed Alshamaa, Save the Children’s director of programs in Yemen, in a statement. “We’re hearing of families who have lost two or three loved ones in the past few weeks.”

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