Screen grab from a video showing a patient in a hospital room in Taiz.
It’s known as the “airplane of the sick” to Cairo airport employees. Flights between Yemen's Sanaa and the Egyptian capital are full of ill Yemenis forced abroad to find proper treatment. This phenomenon illustrates the awful state of health services in Yemen.
According to the Yemeni embassy in Cairo, more than 200,000 Yemenis go to Egypt every year seeking medical treatment. Each person spends on average 2,000 US dollars (about 1,450 euros). With two flights a day from Sanaa to Cairo, Egypt is the top choice for Yemenis seeking health care abroad, followed by Jordan.
Yemen’s health sector – like all of its public sectors – is in a dire state. On average, eight women die in childbirth per day. According to the World Health Organisation’s latest report, there is just one doctor per 100,000 people in Yemen, while in Egypt, there are 283 doctors per 100,000 people.
Video for a blood drive organised for Yemeni patients in Cairo.
"To get decent medical treatment in Yemen, you had better live in the city, have money and not have a serious illness"
Atiaf Alwazir, 34, is a researcher and blogger who lives in Sanaa. She wrote a piece about the problems plaguing Yemen’s health care for her blog “Woman From Yemen”.
The phenomenon of going abroad to seek health care is widespread in Yemen, but the media doesn’t talk about it much because it’s considered almost normal. Everyone gets treated abroad: the rich and powerful go to the Gulf states, Europe or the US. Former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, for example, was treated in Saudi Arabia. Those of more modest means mainly go to Egypt and Jordan. The poorest, meanwhile, who mostly live outside the capital, have no choice but to go to Sanaa’s hospitals.Generally speaking, to get decent medical treatment in Yemen, you had better live in the city, have money and not have too serious an illness. About 80 percent of health services – hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices – are located in cities, though 70 percent of Yemen’s population lives in rural areas. On top of this, many doctors who work in hospitals often take breaks to work in their own private clinics, since they make more money there. This means that if you want a doctor’s full attention, it’s best to go to a private clinic, which of course will cost you more. And there is no state health insurance in Yemen, only private insurance. Finally, there’s such a dire lack of medical equipment that Yemeni doctors themselves often advise patients to go seek treatment abroad. If you need to get dialysis, for example, they’ll advise you to leave Yemen, since the frequent electricity cuts here make this procedure impossible."Sometimes, patients die on the plane"Of course, there are some exceptions, private establishments like the Saudi-German medical centre in Sanaa. But it’s quite costly. For the same price, people prefer to go abroad, because there’s a real crisis of confidence between patients and Yemeni doctors. People worry that they may be incompetent, and I can understand this fear: I spoke to a doctor once who admitted that he didn’t have a diploma, that he’d learnt medicine “on the job” with his father, who was a doctor. The state doesn’t do much to check that hospital personnel are properly trained.Going abroad for treatment isn’t easy. Patients have to get approved by the clinics that they want to get treated at. They’re usually approved only if they have little to no chance of surviving if they stay in Yemen. Sometimes, they die on their way there, on the plane. As for the costs, it’s not so much the travel that costs a lot, it’s the actual treatment. As foreigners, Yemenis can’t go to public hospitals; they have to go to private clinics. And there, they’re made to pay more than locals.Fighting for a better health care system is not just the responsibility of the state, but also of civil society. However, activists in Yemen are more focused on political rights than social rights. Of course, political change leads to social change, but this can take a long time…