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WHO:  Southern Africa Faces Humanitarian Crisis - 2002-07-10

The World Health Organization says hundreds of thousands of people in drought-stricken countries in southern Africa may die from famine-related illnesses. WHO says at least 60 million people, mainly in Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Mozambique, are facing a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

U.N. agencies say they are focusing their aid operations on 12 million of the most seriously affected people in southern Africa.

The World Health Organization says the crisis follows two years of drought, compounded by instability and population displacement, political and economic issues, and the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

WHO Executive Director David Nabarro says these conditions are resulting in increased susceptibility to illness and increased mortality. He says the death rate already is more than one per 10,000 people each day. "We are also seeing increases in maternal mortality," he said. "The lifetime risk of dying as a result of problems due to pregnancy has doubled in recent months in Southern Africa, and we are seeing a continued rise in tuberculosis and acute chest infections. Our calculations suggest that the crisis in the region could result in around 300,000 excess deaths during the next six months or more."

The United Nations Children's Fund says the famine in southern Africa is seriously affecting more than two million children under age five. Dr. Nabarro says severe malnutrition leaves people vulnerable to a variety of diseases. "People do not very often die of starvation, particularly children," he said. "They become acutely malnourished because there is no food. And then their resistance to disease drops dramatically and they usually die because of pneumonia or diarrhea or exacerbation of tuberculosis. "

Dr. Nabarro says food alone is not enough to ensure survival in this kind of crisis. He says aid agencies also must deal with urgent health care needs, such as providing adequate and safe water, immunizing people against infectious diseases, and improving maternal and reproductive health.

Next week, the United Nations plans to issue an emergency appeal for more than $50 million for health programs in southern Africa - in addition to $500 million already requested for food aid.