By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, Jan 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After enduring three years of war, hunger and disease, Yemenis could now be at heightened risk of catching malaria due to a collapsing health care system, aid agencies said on Thursday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that malaria cases rose in 2016 to 433,000 from 336,000 the year before.
Poor access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation put more people at risk of the life-threatening disease, according to aid agencies.
"Yemen is living with the catastrophic consequences of a protracted conflict that has destroyed much of its vital infrastructure and brought the health system to the brink of collapse," said Mirella Hodeib, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest countries, is embroiled in a proxy war between the Houthi armed movement, allied with Iran, and a U.S.-backed military coalition headed by Saudi Arabia.
The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and crippled Yemen's economy and healthcare system.
In an emailed statement, Hodeib said the situation in Yemen "provided the optimal conditions for the growth and re-emergence of communicable diseases" in a country that is already battling a million suspected cholera cases and a threatened diphtheria outbreak.
Abdullah Radman, deputy medical coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone that rural areas were most at risk because of limited heathcare facilities.
"The numbers of malaria cases could increase. It will be more serious if there is no treatment or preventative measures. People will die," said Radman from the capital of Sanaa.
Malaria - which peaks in the rainy season - is endemic in Yemen, with more than 78 percent of people living in at-risk areas and a quarter of them in high-risk areas, WHO said.
Yemen's health ministry, along with aid organisations, has distributed protective items such as mosquito nets, but Radman called the deteriorating situation a "serious issue".
"A failing sewage system, inadequate healthcare facilities and shortages in health workers and medical supplies, as well as restrictions on imports further compound the healthcare crisis," said Hodeib of ICRC.
Aid agencies said this week that Yemen "faces a risk of famine" if there is prolonged and significant disruption to imports through its two key Red Sea ports, which also push food and fuel costs higher.
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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