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Yemen: The silent victims of war

01 Dec 2016

Australian pediatrician Dr Nikola Morton is on her most recent mission with Médecins Sans Frontières in Yemen. “I arrived in Yemen for a six month mission in the Médecins Sans Frontières Mother and Child hospital as a field Pediatrician. This is my fourth mission with Médecins Sans Frontières, and yet I am still surprised and heart-broken by what I have seen already.

The war here in Yemen has largely been absent from the world’s media. The people here have been suffering silently, their society and in particular the medical system, crumbling around them.  Here in Taiz, most of the health facilities have been forced to close, and it is the people that suffer unable to get the medical care they so desperately need. People have been forced to flee from their homes, many living in make-shift IDP camps or in crowded houses, making them vulnerable to disease such as malaria, leishmaniasis, tuberculosis and diarrheal illnesses.  Seeing such suffering as a result of this ongoing conflict is heart-breaking. 

"She is unable to speak to me, but I see the sadness and fear in her eyes. Sadness and fear as she has lost the ability to walk and talk. Stroke is usually something that affects the elderly, not young children unless you have Sickle Cell Disease"

One such person is Rawia*. Rawia is 8 years old and she has presented to our facility with inability to talk and paralysis of her arm and leg. Rawia has arrived 4 days after her symptoms started due to difficulty to make the long journey to our hospital. She is unable to speak to me, but I see the sadness and fear in her eyes. Sadness and fear as she has lost the ability to walk and talk. Stroke is usually something that affects the elderly, not young children unless you have Sickle Cell Disease.  Sickle Cell Disease is a blood disorder which results in abnormal shaped red cells, and these abnormal red cells can block the blood vessels in the brain, resulting in a stroke. With close follow-up including regular transfusions and medicine if available, the risk of stroke can be significantly reduced.  Her family was aware of Rawia’s Sickle Cell Disease and they had previously been attending a health clinic for regular follow-up and blood transfusions, but since the war broke out it has been far too dangerous to make the journey. 

Whether she will make a full recovery is uncertain, but each day I see Rawia, she has regained a little more function. She starts to be able to move her fingers, and then her hand, and then her arm. And while her leg is still paralysed and her speech remains difficult, she has regained some function and she even manages a smile! On the day of her discharge I have mixed emotions – happy that she has been regaining some function and is able to limp out of the hospital, but very concerned, knowing the high likelihood of this happening again as she can’t access the life-saving treatment that she needs while the war continues.

Sadly Rawia is not the only child to suffer from difficulty accessing health care. In the room down the corridor is baby Mohammad*. He is only 4 weeks old and has suffered a brain hemorrhage due to his blood not clotting properly.  He was born at home as his mother was not able to get to a health facility for his birth. Had Mohammad been born in hospital, he would have received a simple vitamin K injection that would have prevented this bleeding. Or baby Omar*, who has been brought in with neonatal tetanus, his little body going into spasm at even the lightest touch, another consequence of an unhygienic delivery at home. It is these stories that confront me every day. Stories that seem to be deemed not worthy of a headline or even a back page story.  But these stories matter, these lives matter.”

 

*names changed for confidentiality