Lives Lost: Doctor who battled disease outbreaks in Yemen
For five decades, Yassin Abdel-Wareth was one of a handful of epidemiologists in Yemen, traveling across the impoverished country to hunt for disease outbreaks that are as endemic as armed conflicts in the Middle East’s poorest nation.
He had seen cholera, malaria, Rift Valley fever and, in early June, he was worried about the new coronavirus.
Abdel-Wareth told his brother: “The virus is in every house in Yemen.”
Weeks later, the 72-year-old doctor-turned-epidemiologist was dead from COVID-19. His family said he may have contracted the virus while inspecting a quarantine facility set up outside the capital, Sanaa, by Houthi rebels, who have been concealing the virus’s toll in Yemen.
“We will need 100 years to have someone like Dr. Yassin,” colleague Abdel-Salam al-Aqel said.
Abdel-Wareth’s family and colleagues remember a generous, kind-hearted man who protected them from Yemen’s ultraconservative society and a tireless doctor with an encyclopedic memory who navigated the country’s tribal and regional fault lines to educate Yemenis about disease prevention. ___
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world. ___
Hailing from a poor family, Abdel-Wareth was the eldest of seven siblings from the western province of Taiz, the birthplace of many of Yemen’s intellectuals and businessmen. He left a short stint as an air traffic controller to study medicine in the then-Soviet Union.
Years later, he returned to work at rural hospitals, where he was the only health worker, doing everything from treating malnutrition to handling surgeries. He took up epidemiology because he wanted to prevent the diseases that drove scores of patients to his hospital.
“If an outbreak takes place in one place, he leads a team and heads right away, regardless of the place, if it’s hard to reach or not, if it’s morning or night, or if it’s during holidays or not,” said Abdel Hakim al-Kohlani, a senior health official who first met Abdel-Wareth 26 years ago.
On his treks to shanty towns, remote villages and hidden valleys, he seldom wore protective gowns or masks. His family and colleagues said he believed his immune system would fight off any pathogens, even as he caught the diseases he tried to prevent.
Abdel-Wareth didn’t let his bouts go to waste. He used his own experience to educate people about the dangers of disease, his family said.
Along with his boundless energy, he brought an intimate knowledge of the places and people he visited, said al-Aqel, the epidemiologist.
Al-Aqel remembered a visit to the impoverished Tihama region, where Abdel-Wareth was investigating an outbreak of Rift Valley fever, a mosquito-borne disease that infects animals and can be fatal. Humans can get it by contacting the body fluids or tissues of infected animals.
“He knew where the most vulnerable are, the places where the over 60 are staying in, the underage, the pregnant, and those who need special attention,” he said. “Even the animals, he would know who has what kind of animals.”
A year later, malaria came to the same region. The government used a field investigation by Abdel-Wareth to get funds from international donors and parliament, al-Aqel said. At the time, the mortality rate was 48% and by mid-2000 sank to below 3 percent.
Throughout his field work, the smile never left his face. “When things get so tense, in the field, among the team members, his wit and jokes would lighten the mood,” al-Aqel said.
Years later, as the civil war was brewing, traveling to areas tense with tribal fighting became a challenge. In 2014, the year Houthi rebels seized the capital and set off the current war, Abdel-Wareth was leading an anti-malaria campaign in Marib, in eastern Yemen, when armed tribesmen seized and drove off with his convoy, taking with it all of their equipment and medicine.
After negotiations between Abdel-Wareth, health ministry officials and a tribal leader, the teams were invited back to work, his son Ishaq said. All the doctors refused. “My father just formed new teams and headed there,” he said, adding, “He didn’t hesitate.”
At home, Abdel-Wareth’s family remembers his generosity and all that he did to set an example against the conservative traditions of Yemeni society.
His brother Jamal said Abdel-Wareth brought the entire family under one roof in a small house in Sanaa, where he shared his salary among his parents and siblings. He financially supported his siblings while they got educations and married.
“He wouldn’t think about tomorrow. If he has 1,000 dollars and there is a need, he just spends the money, without a second thought,” he said.
In Yemen’s ultraconservative society, women are the last to eat, start trying to have children as soon as they get married, and limit interaction with the outside world. Abdel-Wareth made sure those customs didn’t invade his family’s life.
He would, for instance, wake each morning to buy his wife breakfast, and always made sure his mother would be the first to eat, his family said.
Niece Raghda Jamal recalled that before her wedding, he came to her with “unthinkable” advice in a society in which women are pressured to start having babies immediately after marriage. He told her to postpone pregnancy until she got to know her husband well.
“He is my legendary hero,” she said.
As the coronavirus spread around the globe this year, his brother said, Abdel-Wareth was concerned that it was making its way across his country. Then, Abdel-Wareth learned that he had become infected.
Hospitals in Sanaa refused to take him initially, fearful that doing so would expose their facilities to the virus as they struggled with limited resources and unprotected medical staff. He later was admitted to one, but then waited for nine hours to be treated. His family doesn’t blame officials.
“They are all at risk and we totally understand all the excuses not to help,” his son said.
After his death, Abdel-Wareth’s phone continued to buzz: Public health and medical workers from across Yemen, unaware of his passing, were sending him messages with daily updates on disease outbreaks.
Michael reported from Cairo.