Toddler’s illness highlights Yemen’s broken health system

Seven-year-old Yemeni Ibrahim Aati has endured excruciating pain from large, swollen lumps on his back and stomach for more than three years.

In late 2019, he found it difficult to play, walk, or even sleep due to the pain. The pain only gets worse with each passing day.

Muhammad, Ibrahim’s father, took him to a hospital in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, where doctors told them that Ibrahim would need two surgeries, but not until he was four years old.

The father and son returned to their village in the Haradh district of Hajjah Governorate in northwestern Yemen, hoping to raise money for the surgeries by selling watermelons. Muhammad sold some of his wife’s gold and followed the doctors’ instructions to wait for more time.

But it was only a few days later that their hopes were dashed. Their homes and farms turned into a battleground for the warring parties in Yemen. Muhammad had to spend all of the family’s savings to ensure their survival, and they fled their home empty-handed in search of a safe shelter.

The family of nine then joined many other displaced families to settle in the government-controlled Midi District of Hajjah Governorate, where they had to make do with huts. After Muhammad lost his farm, the only source of his income, he had to discontinue Ibrahim’s medical care.

Although fighting has largely ceased in the area after a UN-brokered nationwide truce took effect in April 2022, the Aati family’s everyday challenges remain.

Most of Ibrahim’s time is now spent lying alone on bed, where he prefers to rest on his left side. Whenever his pain becomes unbearable, the family rushes him to the nearby hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital lacks essential medicines, medical equipment, and specialized doctors.

“Every day, numerous patients seek medical assistance here, but in many cases, including Ibrahim’s, we are unable to provide adequate help or even the necessary medication,” said Mohammed Saif, a doctor at the hospital.

“We can only offer some painkillers to alleviate their sufferings. In critical situations, such as those involving cancer patients, we advise them to travel to specialized hospitals in larger cities,” added Saif.

Ibrahim is among millions of Yemenis who lack access to essential medical services. The outbreak of the Yemeni civil war in late 2014 has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced 4 million people, and wreaked havoc on the country’s healthcare system and economy.

Moreover, the conflict has cut road connections, impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid, and hindered access to healthcare facilities. Humanitarian corridors are yet to be fully established, exacerbating the plight of Yemenis.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in a report in March that over 2.3 million Yemeni children continue to reside in displacement camps, where their access to basic health, nutrition, education, sanitation, and hygiene services remains inadequate.

Now, Ibrahim can no longer stand on his own. Fawziah Abkar, his mother, believes that his son will continue to suffer from the pain as long as lasting peace is not restored in the country.

“My heart aches for Ibrahim, and our home has lost its joy. We can see his symptoms are getting worse day by day,” she said. ■

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