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WFP Warns Southern Africa Faces Its Worst Ever Food Crisis

The U.N. World Food Program says nearly 10 million people in six southern African countries are facing their worst ever food crisis. The WFP is renewing an urgent appeal for money needed to keep millions of people from starving.

The World Food Program says it needs $157 million immediately to provide urgent food assistance during the next six months to 9.7 million people in southern Africa.

The World Food Program says the problems are most severe in Zimbabwe, where 4.3 million people face starvation. While fewer people are affected in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho, the World Food Program says problems of acute hunger are no less serious in those countries.

WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa, Mike Sackett, says many people in rural communities are living a hand-to-mouth existence, eating wild foods that have no nutritional value. He says many of these wild foods are dangerous.

"Some people have already died,"he said. "We have reports of people who have resorted to filling their stomachs with poisonous tubers and you hear of families dying already. You also have to recognize that in these six countries, we estimate that 500,000 people per annum are dying of HIV/AIDS."

Mr. Sackett says people infected with HIV are more vulnerable to dying from hunger-related illnesses.

Southern Africa is experiencing its fourth consecutive year of food shortages, exacerbated by crushing poverty and the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS. Statistics show that life expectancy in a number of countries has gone from around 50 in the 1970s to under 35 years today.

Mr. Sackett says severe malnutrition among young children in Malawi is increasing at an alarming rate. But, elsewhere, he says malnutrition rates have been kept in check.

"To date, we do not have particularly alarming figures. We cannot say that 'X' percent of children are malnourished. What we are seeing are the first signs of increasing rates of children coming along to nutrition rehabilitation units. In August this year, we saw the rates of children coming along were about 30 percent higher than they were in 2004. So, it is an early indicator of increasing deprivation," he said.

WFP official Sackett says unless donors provide the needed cash now, many people will not receive help in time.

He notes the United States is the biggest donor, giving more than $104 million this year, compared to $64 million by the European Union. He says no funds have been pledged by the oil-rich states, even though oil prices have been reaching record highs for most of this year.