UN urges dispatch of health services to avert mass death in drought-hit southern Africa

UN urges dispatch of health services to avert mass death in drought-hit southern Africa

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Basic health supplies and services must be provided to southern Africa as part of the international response to averting the looming risk of famine and widespread death, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said today.

The ravaging AIDS epidemic and serious economic problems are worsening health conditions for some 12 to 14 million people within southern Africa, where long-term neglect has left hospitals and health centres unable to cope.

"Weakened by hunger, many people will die of diseases," said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. "They could have survived if they had produced adequate food or been able to purchase the food they need."

Dr. Brundtland voiced particular concern about data showing a doubling of the lifetime risk of maternal mortality in some areas as well as the continuing rise in tuberculosis, acute respiratory infections and malaria. "We fear there could be at least 300,000 'extra' deaths during the next six months because of this crisis," she said.

The agency cited the example of Malawi, where maternal mortality rates have soared by 71 per cent due in part to malnutrition and poor health conditions. Another indication that people weakened by food are succumbing to disease can be found in the country's high fatality rate from cholera, which WHO says should normally kill less than 1 per cent of those afflicted.

"We're staring catastrophe in the face - unless we get food aid fast to millions of people whose lives are in the balance because they are starving," said World Food Programme Executive Director James Morris, who is also the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy to the region. "With each passing month the situation will get worse if we don't receive more food, water and medicine," he added.