Skip to main content

Najla Al-Sonboli, World Health Assembly's Heroine of Health

Women in Science: Al-Sonboli was a pediatrician in Yemen who continued to care for the children while the hospital was under fire during rocket attacks.

Najla Al-Sonboli
Photo by Emily Tribe

Yemen has been amidst conflict since 2011. The fighting has plagued the country by killing tens of thousands of people and triggering the downfall of health in children and adults. Healthcare workers have been in their own battle to stabilize public health. In 2018, the World Health Assembly honored Yemen pediatrician Najla Al-Sonboli as a Heroine of Health for her work as a public health advocate for the city of Sana’a.

The war in Yemen is the root of significant problems for children as many lost their parents, became sick, suffered from injuries, and were stricken with starvation. As refugees leave their homes, children experience the physical and mental afflictions caused by displacement. Al-Sonboli felt called to serve them, saying, “I love kids and I can’t bear the thought that anything could hurt them. So, I decided to work for them.”

The hospital Al-Sonboli works sits beside a special security forces military camp and attracts dangerous attacks. As rockets hit the hospital, she continued to work under fire. Even though she was presented with the chance to leave the city, Al-Sonboli decided that despite the security issues, she had to stay because the children needed a reliable healthcare worker by their sides. Al-Sonboli continued to serve under fire and without a salary for several years in order to advocate for public health.

Al-Sonboli treated Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) in suffering children. SAM attacked many children and raised cause to reserve a portion of the emergency room for children needing special attention. When Yemen was afflicted with the cholera epidemic, patients outside the hospital’s boundaries were sent to reside in their isolation ward. The overwhelming pressure paired with fighting in the frontline of the epidemic left Al-Sonboli with great fear, but it never stopped her from being an essential aid to suffering patients.

The overburdened hospital was unable to sustain the severity of emergencies and the number of patients. Al-Sonboli recognized the hospital’s diagnosis, and she treated that too. With the help of her fellow alumni from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the hospital’s emergency department was revived after several attacks and an extreme deficit of resources. The alumni’s support increased capacity and supported doctors so the facility could continue to function.

Al-Sonboli felt terrified being under attack and responsible for treating children, SAM, and cholera, but she accepted the challenges in order to protect the health of the people in Sana’a. Al-Sonboli embraced her critical responsibilities as a health care worker and was the person to stay when no one else would.