The United Nations Children's Fund says millions of children in drought-stricken Horn of Africa are in a state of crisis. UNICEF says immediate action is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
The United Nations reports that two consecutive years of drought have left Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti unable to feed many of their people. It says an estimated eight million people need emergency assistance and it warns that number could increase if the hoped for rains do not materialize in April.
A Spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund, Damien Personnaz, says 1.5 million children under the age of five are in particular need of assistance. He says they are badly malnourished, thus increasing their risk of not surviving an outbreak of disease. He says diarrhea poses a particular threat.
"When you have a combination of drought and lack of water, it increases the level of malnutrition which is already extremely high among the child population in the area and, therefore, we might expect some outbreaks of diseases such as waterborne diseases because the less water you have, the more danger there is to drink it. So, the children are getting very much affected," said Personnaz. "And, we also fear a lot of outbreaks of measles."
Personnaz says children weakened by malnutrition face a much higher risk of infection, and measles can spread quickly among unprotected populations.
During the next few months, he says UNICEF plans to expand its therapeutic feeding programs for malnourished children and to step up measles immunization campaigns. The U.N. Children's Agency is appealing for $16 million to support these and other programs.
Personnaz says the drought also is having a long-term impact on children's education. He says children tend to drop out of school in times of crisis. Many are kept at home to help their families cope and many more do not attend because they are too poor to afford the school fees. He says Kenya has no school fees and UNICEF has persuaded the other three governments to waive their fees.
"What we are trying to do is to combine the fact that when the children are in school, they can be fed… by the World Food Program through feeding activities. Water can be given to them in an easy way," he added. "Sanitation facilities can be slightly better than if they were living in the open air. It is again the right place for them to be if we want to boost immunization campaigns."
Personnaz says Somalia is a particularly difficult case because it lacks a central government. He says access is limited in many areas and bringing relief supplies there is often dangerous and always expensive.
Another problematic area is southern Ethiopia. The UNICEF spokesman says it is far from any urban center and difficult to reach. Also, most of the people are nomads, making them hard to track down.