‘Medical air bridge’ takes flight from Yemen’s Sanaa

First transport involves six patients heading to Jordan for treatment as part of agreement mediated by Swedes and implemented by UN

A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.  (photo credit: REUTERS/ DENIS BALIBOUSE)
A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
Six Yemeni patients seeking treatment left the capital Sanaa on February 3 aboard a flight bound for Amman, Jordan, inaugurating a “medical air bridge” organized by the World Health Organization and the United Nations.
A UN official close to the operation confirmed to The Media Line from Sanaa that the flight landed in Amman at 4:28 p.m. Jordan time. 
A WHO communications officer explained that the first flight consisted mainly of women and children ages five to 13. Most are battling cancer.  
“These people are suffering and unable to get the treatment they need inside Yemen. These flights are their last and only hope,” she told The Media Line.
The WHO official said the flight would be the first of four this week, transporting a total of 30 patients to Amman. She explained that the patients were chosen by the Yemeni Health Authority, known as the High Medical Committee. 
“The patients are selected based on need and a pre-defined list of disease conditions that cannot be treated in Yemen, subject to certification that the patient can travel without medical assistance during the flight,” she said.
When asked if more flights were expected beyond this week, she told The Media Line: “We are hopeful that they will continue…. The United Nations will do what it can to ensure the continuation of the medical air bridge as a temporary solution to reduce the suffering of Yemeni people until a more sustainable solution is reached in the near future.”
During the three years that Sanaa’s airport has been shut down – it is controlled by Houthi rebels, but the air space above and over most of the country is controlled by a Saudi-led coalition fighting against the Houthis – commercial travel has been available only from two southern airports, both hours away from Sanaa over rough terrain.
“This amounts to a de-facto blockade on the northern parts of the country, and for many sick people who have been unable to leave, it essentially amounts to a death sentence” Sultana Begum, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) advocacy manager for Yemen, told The Media Line.
The NRC, citing the Ministry of Health in Sanaa, says that at minimum, 32,000 Yemenis are estimated to have died while trying to leave the country to obtain medical treatment abroad.
According to Begum, Monday’s flight was the culmination of some 18 months of diplomatic efforts.
Opening the airport was one of the “confidence building” measures in the Stockholm Agreement, which was signed in December 2018 by the warring sides in Yemen’s civil war. She adds that a reduction in overall fighting since September helped make these flights possible.
“Yemen is still one of the most dangerous places in the world if you’re a civilian, but there has been a glimmer of hope. There have been diplomatic back channels… prisoner exchanges, localized ceasefires. All these things have created the conditions to allow these flights to happen,” Begum said.
The NRC’s Yemen advocacy manager says that while Monday’s flight was a positive start, much more needed to be done, including reopening Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights. 
“These are the lucky few who may be able to [leave], but there are thousands more who are very sick and need to be able to get out,” Begum said. “Reopening Sanaa’s airport for a few medical flights won’t address the overall needs in the country or the crumbling health sector.”
Begum explains that the civil war has left Yemen’s healthcare system in shambles.
“Only half of all healthcare centers, like hospitals, are fully operational. Much of the country’s medical equipment, including in Sanaa, is completely obsolete and urgently needs to be replaced,” she said. “In a situation where Yemenis are finding it difficult [to obtain] food, the cost of medicine is beyond their reach.”
She notes, too, that further flights could be threatened by a recent uptick in violence in northern Yemen.
“This narrow window of opportunity may be closing fast because of the fighting,” she said. “We need the warring parties to agree to a nationwide cease fire and [to] restart peace talks so they can address all the humanitarian and economic crises Yemen faces.”