Yemen received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said on Wednesday, as the war-torn country’s strained health care system grapples with an uptick in cases.
Some 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were supplied to Yemen through the global COVAX vaccine-sharing program. The vaccines, which arrived by plane in the de facto capital of Aden, are the first shipment of a total 1.9 million doses Yemen is scheduled to receive throughout 2021.
UNICEF representative Philippe Duamelle said the vaccines come at a critical moment for the country.
“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,” he said. "Vaccines work, vaccines save lives, now let’s start getting people vaccinated.”
Just last week, Doctors Without Borders warned of a dramatic influx in critically ill COVID-19 patients in Aden and elsewhere in Yemen. According to the medical charity, hospitals are suffering from a severe shortage of oxygen and ICU beds.
“We are urging all medical humanitarian organizations already present in Yemen to rapidly scale up their COVID-19 emergency response,” said Raphael Veicht, the organization’s head of mission in Yemen.
The country’s health system has been devastated by six years of conflict between the Saudi-backed military coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Health care facilities in Yemen were targeted at least 120 times by the conflict’s warring parties between 2015 and 2018, according to the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights and the Yemeni human rights group Mwatana.
The rise in coronavirus cases comes amid a shortage in international assistance provided to the Arab world’s poorest country. A virtual donor conference last month raised $1.7 billion, far below the $3.85 billion the United Nations said it needed to keep its humanitarian programs afloat.
The spread of the coronavirus in Yemen has exacerbated what is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 16 million Yemenis — about half the population — will experience hunger this year, the UN estimates.