The United Nations children's agency is launching an immunization campaign against measles in Malawi, and hopes to expand the program to the rest of southern Africa. The agency says children in southern Africa face a greater risk of contracting the disease because of the region's food crisis.
Officials say the countries of southern Africa already had some of the world's highest malnutrition rates even before the drought struck. They say the crisis has been made worse by the region's high levels of HIV and AIDS which weaken resistance to disease.
UNICEF says it is focusing on the children of southern Africa because they make up more than half of the estimated 13 million people facing starvation. It says increased malnutrition is leading to greater outbreaks of disease among children. Of particular concern is measles because it is one of the biggest killers of children.
UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says the children's agency is launching a vaccination campaign against measles Tuesday in Malawi where she says the levels of starvation are most severe. She says the campaign will continue in southern Africa's five other drought-stricken countries and should wrap up in late September.
"Children in Malawi and other southern Africa countries hit by the drought are often already malnourished, so they have very little defense to fight back any kind of infections," she said. "Something like measles, for example, can take a child who is teetering on the edge of survival and throw them into an abyss."
Ms. Belmonte says the three-day vaccination campaign is aiming to reach all of Malawi's two million children under the age of five.
Officials say the long drought and the failure of maize harvests throughout southern Africa have hit Malawi particularly hard because the country sold off its maize reserve just before the harvest failure. They say Malawi sold the maize to repay its foreign debts.
The U.N.'s World Food Program says it is struggling to keep supplies of cereals flowing into Malawi and the rest of southern Africa.