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Diphtheria takes a deadly stranglehold on war-torn Yemen

Yemen is already suffering from a devastating civil war and widespread hunger. Now, circumstances caused by the conflict have also paved the way for diphtheria to thrive. The airborne disease kills 1 of every 10 patients even with medical treatment--and most victims in Yemen receive too little, too late. Special correspondent Beth Murphy of The GroundTruth Project has one family's tragic story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now another aspect at the world's largest humanitarian crisis. It comes through the story of one family that has borne astonishing loss, and is trying to prevent even more from the preventable disease diphtheria.

    And though it's been eradicated in many parts of the world through vaccination, the public health crisis caused by Yemen's war has let this infection flourish there for the first time since 1989.

    From Aden, special correspondent Beth Murphy reports.

  • Beth Murphy:

    If you could hear Nora, you would hear her screaming. She is just 4 years old, with a tracheostomy tube robbing her of voice, but giving her life.

    It's her only way of breathing while suffering from diphtheria. Her two siblings, both sisters, have already died of the highly contagious bacterial infection. Now she's in a hospital isolation ward, watched over by her mother and grandmother as she struggles to breathe.

  • Fatima Al-Gorari:

    Ameera and Sondos are the two that died. We are devastated by it. They died with blood coming out of their mouths in their mother's arms, may they rest in peace.

  • Beth Murphy:

    Diphtheria is known as the strangling angel of children.

    Dr. Alnoor Aboularishi explains why. Is it really like strangling?

  • Dr. Alnoor Aboularishi:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, there is a narrowing in the airway.

  • Beth Murphy:

    That narrowing is caused by a toxin that can also get into the bloodstream and attack the heart, kidneys and nervous system.

    That's what killed Nora's younger sister, Ameera, who was 3 years old.

    Ali Masood Muhammed is the nurse who was with her in the ambulance when she died.

  • Ali Masood Muhammed:

    Suddenly, she was having seizures and screaming and started convulsing. She was sleeping, and then she woke up screaming. This wasn't normal.

    So I tried to get her to rest. It was cardiac arrest, so I started CPR. I kept performing CPR, CPR, CPR, until 4:30 a.m. I handed the body to the father. I said: "Here is your daughter. I did the best I could and did everything I was able to do, and left the rest to God."

  • Beth Murphy:

    Nora's older sister, Sondos, didn't survive the surgery to insert a tracheostomy tube in her throat.

  • Dr. Alnoor Aboularishi:

    I am working here 26 years as a pediatric doctor. I don't facing diphtheria during whole my work, only last year.

  • Beth Murphy:

    It's been nearly 30 years since Yemen's last diphtheria outbreak. The first case in this latest crisis came in August 2017.

    Since then, the disease has spread to every corner of the country, as the war has made it difficult to inoculate children and also moved large, fleeing, populations closer together, where the airborne disease can rapidly spread through coughing and sneezing; 2,600 cases have been counted, but doctors suspect there are countless others that have been misdiagnosed, often as tonsillitis.

    Doctors here have treated 70 patients. Twelve of them died. Nearly all the victims are like Nora, whose families fled fighting in the north. Across Yemen, the health care system has collapsed, and there are severe shortages of vaccines, medicines, equipment and of staff to use it all.

  • Dr. Alnoor Aboularishi:

    During the war, many, many, many health centers stopped to work. There is no vaccination. And also there is migration of the population from one town to another avoiding the war.

  • Beth Murphy:

    Because the Al-Sadaqa Hospital here in the southern port city of Aden has received the largest number of diphtheria cases over the past year, doctors here have created training materials that are now being used to teach other doctors all around the country how to handle diphtheria cases.

    Nora's roommate is 8-year-old Sultan. For three weeks, he's been treated with antibiotics and a diphtheria antitoxin. It's a big step to practice talking again.

    Even with treatment, diphtheria kills one out of every 10 patients. Untreated, the death rate is one out of every two. With two of their three children already gone, Nora's family is doing everything they can to keep her alive.

  • Fatima Al-Gorari:

    It was traumatic. What could we have done? We didn't know anything about this disease. No cure. Nothing. No parent should bury their child.

    If we'd known about the vaccine, we would've done anything to get it. The disease doesn't know old from young. We will cry for the rest of our lives from the pain we feel from their deaths.

  • Beth Murphy:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Beth Murphy in Aden, Yemen.

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