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Malnutrition Rates Worsen at Newest Somali Refugee Camp

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Humanitarian agencies say the condition of newly-arrived Somali refugees at camps in Ethiopia is deteriorating as famine spreads inside Somalia.  At the Hilaweyn camp along the Somalia-Ethiopia border, more than half the newly-arrived children are suffering from malnutrition.

Thirty children cling to life at the emergency ward of the Doctors Without Borders clinic at Hilaweyn Camp. Eight died of severe malnutrition last week, and 80 more new cases show up at the door each morning.

Hilaweyn was just opened a month ago to handle the overflow from three other camps at Dollo Ado, a sprawling complex holding more than 120,000 refugees from Somalia’s famine zone. Hilaweyn’s emergency coordinator Voitek Asztabski says these recent arrivals are in worse shape than those who came earlier.

"They are chronically malnourished. The journey itself lasts for days or weeks.  It’s a tremendous effort for them to cross and come to this place here. And they are not getting stronger during the walk, they are getting weaker, so that’s why what we observe is over 50 percent of malnourished kids below five years old that cross the border are malnourished," he said.

Asztabski says 1,800 children, or nearly half those under the age of five, are in the camp’s nutritional assistance program.

The United Nations refugee agency says the flow of refugees into Dollo Ado was more than 2,000 a day at its peak. Now the flow has dried to a trickle. But agency spokeswoman Laura Padoan says the latest group of refugees is showing symptoms of a variety of malnutrition-related diseases.

"You can hear a lot of coughing, there’s a lot of children here that have upper respirtory infections, many of them been staying outside while traveling to Ethiopia, haven’t had shelter, so some arrive with pneumonia, but the main issue is malnutrition because they’ve been forced to flee because of the drought and the famine," she said.

The United Nations announced Monday that famine has spread to a sixth region in Somalia, and warned that 750,000 people could die unless relief operations are scaled up.

Doctors Without Borders’ Voitek Asztabski says the hardship of working in the windswept desert of Hilaweyn Camp is offset by the knowledge that lives are being saved here. But humanitarian workers say much more is urgently needed to head off a looming catastrophe over the next six to 12 months, and maybe longer if the rains in Somalia fail again.

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