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Health Crisis Deepening in Ethiopia

The World Health Organization says worsening malnutrition and the threat of disease outbreaks are compounding Ethiopia's humanitarian crisis. The WHO is launching a $25 million appeal to provide urgently needed health assistance to tens of thousands of people at risk. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

The World Health Organization reports more than 4.5 million people in Ethiopia are in urgent need of emergency food relief. And, it says that number is growing.

It warns of a looming health crisis, made worse by the global food security crisis. It says the health risks also are compounded by the impact of drought on agricultural production and the country's weak health system.

The UN health agency says annual rains during the coming months are expected to cause large-scale flooding, increasing loss of crops and risk of disease.

WHO Spokesman, Paul Garwood, says the international community must act quickly to help millions of Ethiopians whose health is worsening every day. As in all crises of this magnitude, he says children, women and the elderly are most at risk.

"We are seeing that some 75,000 children, aged under five need therapeutic and supplementary nutrition support in the country," said Garwood. "In just the past three months alone, just as an example of the worsening food situation, we are seeing the number of government food centers rising from 200 three months ago to 605 today. That is just in three regions of the country, the most severely affected regions of the country."

Even during the best of times, Ethiopians do not have a good health record. Before this current crisis erupted, WHO says more than 60 percent of the population was suffering from either acute or chronic malnutrition. It warns malnutrition rates are likely to get even worse as food becomes scarcer and hunger more plentiful.

Garwood says the lack of access to safe drinking water, shortages of drugs and medical supplies will put vulnerable people at significant risk of disease outbreaks.

"The major diseases that we see concern surrounding meningitis, measles and diarrhea, particularly acute watery diarrhea," he said. "I am not aware of deaths as a result of these three types of diseases. But, you know, these three types of diseases are worsening in the country. So, of course, the fear, the potential for death as a result of hunger, malnutrition and diseases is high."

The UN agency's $25 million appeal will be used to help Ethiopia reconstruct its health sector and provide for the nutritional and health needs of its stricken population.

Priorities include measures to strengthen disease and nutritional surveillance, to prevent measles through immunization activities, to train health staff, improve water and sanitation and provide urgently needed drugs and medical supplies.