Saving Lives In Yemen
Written by Samuel Mbuto, Abdullah Ibrahim and Tyler Marshall, International Medical Corps
It cost just $50 for the medicines needed to save baby Shamekh.
Indeed, the entire three-week treatment provided by International Medical Corps to rescue the 17-month-old Yemeni boy from death’s door totalled just $511.
That sum included all direct treatment costs for Shamekh during his three-week stay at Al Dorah Hospital, where International Medical Corps operates a therapeutic treatment centre to care for those with severe acute malnutrition. Costs included staff care, special therapeutic food, diagnostic laboratory services, a one-time transportation allowance to enable Shamekh and his parents to travel the 20 miles from their home to the hospital, diapers for Shamekh and snacks for family members. And, of course, the medication.
For Shamekh, this initially meant antibiotics, medicine to control a high fever and a nasty cough, and IV fluids to stop his vomiting and bolster his immune system. When he first arrived at the centre, his weight—just 10 pounds, 5 ounces—was closer to that of a newborn than an infant well into his second year.
After two weeks of 24-hour care, his strength began to return and his weight started to increase, as his system became strong enough to consume ready-to-use therapeutic foods. He started with a Nutriset starter formula, high in carbohydrates, then switched to a “catch-up” formula from the same producer, higher in protein to rebuild wasted tissue. Much to his parents’ delight, our staff decided Shamekh’s new diet could also include home-cooked soup that his mother had prepared.
After three weeks, he was discharged from the feeding centre and transferred to an outpatient nutrition program for continued treatment, having gained almost 5 pounds. The months of anguish that had driven his parents on their desperate journey in search of help had finally ended with success. Their son had survived.
More than a year has passed since Shamekh’s brush with death. When contacted recently by one of our physicians, his father reports that his son’s health has continued to improve—he is active and energetic, and always eager to play with others. His father adds that Shamekh’s high energy levels often draw questions from visitors inquiring where he had been treated.
“He’s become an ambassador of sorts, referring more children to us who are facing the same situation that he did,” notes International Medical Corps Senior Medical Officer Dr Abdullah Ibriham.
In Yemen, all this makes Shamekh one of the lucky ones.
It’s hard to think of an example in healthcare where the expenditure of a little more than $500 can make a greater difference or carry such abundant rewards, both for the immediate family and for the broader community in which they live.
By comparison, healthcarebluebook.com currently lists the average daily cost for an inpatient at a U.S. hospital as $3,949—which, if applied to Shamekh’s 21-day visit, would add up to a bit less than $83,000. The same site calculates the “fair price” for a hospital emergency room visit to deal with a minor problem at $533—more than Shamekh’s entire treatment.
Well before Yemen’s civil war began in March 2015, survival was a struggle for the country’s children. In 2013, four in every 10 Yemeni children under the age of 5 were underweight. The long years of armed conflict since have only made things worse, leaving many parts of the country under the threat of famine.
A December 2019 United Nations report on the status of children in the country estimated that 368,000 under age 5 suffer from severe acute malnutrition, while a 2018 study by Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children under 5 in Yemen had starved to death since the war started.
When Shamekh became chronically ill, his parents travelled from their home in the district of Bani Dhabyan to the country’s capital, Sana’a, seeking help—but months of searching brought no solution. When they heard about a hospital in Jihanah, about 25 miles southeast of Sana’a, that cared for children suffering from symptoms similar to those of their son, they didn’t hesitate. Though far from their home, they realised they had little choice. To reach the facility, they spent nearly five hours and $100 on transportation. They were desperate. “My child was on the edge of death,” Shamekh’s mother recalls.
Since International Medical Corps opened its therapeutic feeding centre at the Al Dorah Hospital in early 2018, our team there has treated 157 children. All survived, enabling us to head off the ultimate tragedy that can befall a family: the loss of a child. Though it might not cost much to do it, we think results like that are priceless.