War-torn Yemen has received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines, the United Nations children’s agency said, a week after the country’s coronavirus committee warned of a public health “emergency”.
The AstraZeneca vaccines “will enable health workers and other priority populations vulnerable to COVID-19 to be protected against the virus,” UNICEF said in a statement on Wednesday.
UN and government officials received the doses in the southern city of Aden, which has been the temporary capital for the past six years due to the conflict between the government and Houthi rebels, who control Sanaa.
This first batch is part of 1.9 million doses that Yemen will receive throughout 2021, UNICEF added.
Last week Yemen’s coronavirus committee urged the government to declare a public health “state of emergency” amid a surge in infections.
It called for the implementation of a “partial curfew” and for the closure of wedding halls, shopping centres and mosques outside of prayer times.
Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) has also warned the number of critical COVID-19 patients was rising across the country, urging assistance from donor countries and specialised groups.
MSF is “seeing a dramatic influx of critically ill COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalisation in Aden, Yemen, and many other parts of the country,” the medical charity said.
“We are urging all medical humanitarian organisations already present in Yemen to rapidly scale up their COVID-19 emergency response,” said Raphael Veicht, MSF head of mission in the country.
Yemen has officially recorded more than 4,000 virus cases among its 30 million people, including 863 deaths – but experts say the real toll is likely higher.
“The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine doses is a critical moment for Yemen,” Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF representative to Yemen, said on Wednesday.
“As COVID-19 continues to claim lives around the world, Yemen now has the capacity to protect those most at risk, including health workers, so that they can safely continue to provide life-saving interventions for children and families.”
The country has been mired in a disastrous war for more than six years which has left it on the brink of famine. Its healthcare system is in ruins.
Adham Ismail, the World Health Organization representative in Yemen, said the vaccine shipment was a significant step forward.
“It will help save lives, including of those at highest risk of serious disease, and will help protect the health system,” Ismail said.
“These safe and effective vaccines will be a game changer, but for the foreseeable future we must continue wearing masks, physically distance and avoid crowds.”
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in 2015 to shore up the government, and since then the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and displaced millions.
The United Nations calls the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.