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Situation worsening for Horn of Africa's children, warns UN agency

Situation worsening for Horn of Africa's children, warns UN agency

Almost three million children across the Horn of Africa are at risk of death, disease and malnutrition due to a combination of drought, rising food prices and conflict, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned today.

The children are among the more than 14 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti that are critically affected, and the numbers are on an “alarming upward trajectory,” according to UNICEF.

The agency said some experts are predicting that millions more children and families could be engulfed across the Horn of Africa if steps are not taken immediately.

“Strong national leadership is needed at this critical juncture, and more international funding must be quickly mobilized,” UNICEF's regional director for East and Southern Africa, Per Engebak, said in a statement. “The risks to children and their families are immense and we are running out of time to reverse them.”

Relief efforts in the troubled region have been hampered by weak governance as well as attacks on aid workers by armed groups. “Security is a major complication in responding to the needs of affected people in many parts of the Horn at this time,” said Mr. Engebak.

He also underscored the difficulties of lack of access, along with the soaring cost of food grains and cereals worldwide. Food prices have risen by as much as 200 per cent over the past eight months in some of the worst drought-affected countries, making it nearly impossible for many families to purchase much-need items.

The high prices are also making it difficult for relief organizations to purchase the amount of grains and cereals needed to respond to the emergency. Also, the rising price of fuel – up between 300 and 1,000 per cent in Somalia, for example – threatens food and water deliveries.

“If concerted actions and funding are not forthcoming this crisis could have irreversible effects on the people of the Horn and push any prospect of progress towards the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] far beyond reach of their countries,” Mr. Engebak said, referring to the eight anti-poverty targets world leaders have pledged to try to achieve by 2015.

The number of those requiring assistance in Ethiopia is expected to rise from the current 4.6 million, according to UNICEF, adding that there are now 75,000 children there in need of therapeutic feeding.

Supplies of Plumpy Nut – the very effective nutritional supplement for managing acute malnutrition in children – manufactured in Ethiopia are not enough to meet the needs. UNICEF is helping procure supplies internationally, but additional funds are required until the end of the year for those imports.

John Holmes, the UN's top relief official, told reporters today that it was clear from his recent visit to Ethiopia that “the crisis remains very severe, and the numbers of people affected are continuing to rise.”

A $325 million humanitarian appeal launched for Ethiopia in June has been “reasonably well funded, over 60 per cent,” he said. However, noting that the needs are “extremely large,” he made an urgent appeal to donors to contribute more for the next few months to help alleviate the situation.

Meanwhile, the number of people needing emergency aid in Somalia has spiralled upwards by 77 per cent since January, and now totals 3.2 million people. Insecurity in the port city of Mogadishu – through which 80 per cent of all supplies for the country pass – is a major obstacle in relief efforts, and the UN needs an estimated $10 million to ensure enough security in Somalia.

UNICEF plans to carry out a child health campaign in the country in October, aiming to reach 1.5 million children under the age of five with measles vaccinations, vitamin A supplements and other health measures.

Spikes in acute malnutrition are being seen among children in parts of Eritrea, the agency said. In addition, 7,500 children in Uganda's Karamoja region are severely malnourished, while over 700,000 people there are estimated to lack sufficient food.

In Kenya, UNICEF said an estimated 1.3 million are affected by food insecurity, about 840,000 of those in the arid and semi-arid pastoralist areas and the others displaced during the violent political crisis early in the year.

Over 95,000 children under the age of five and pregnant and breastfeeding women in the drought-ravaged areas of northern and eastern Kenya are malnourished, the agency added. There are also increasing reports of children dropping out of school and girls entering prostitution to earn money for their families.