UNITED NATIONS - The number of people needing humanitarian aid in Congo has increased dramatically in the past year to 13 million and "hunger and malnutrition have reached the highest level on record,'' the head of the U.N. children's agency said Monday.
UNICEF's Executive Director Henrietta Fore told a news conference that 7.5 million of those needing aid are children, including 4 million suffering from acute malnutrition and over 1.4 million from severe acute malnutrition "which means that they are in imminent risk of death.''
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, who just returned from a visit to Congo with Fore, said the U.N. is appealing for $1.65 billion in humanitarian aid for the country this year - more than double the $700 million plus that it raised last year to help 8.5 million people.
He said the worsening humanitarian situation is the result of economic stresses including volatility in commodity prices and the turbulent political situation surrounding December's elections, compounded by violence, increased displacement and the world's second-largest Ebola outbreak.
Fore added that farmers fleeing with their families and drought in some areas also contributed.
She said the difficulty is that last year's U.N. appeal was only half funded, and if that same amount is contributed this year it will only be a quarter of this year's appeal, "and the needs are immense.''
Fore cited more grim statistics: 2 million people were newly displaced last year; 7.3 million children are out of school; 300,000 children die each year before their fifth birthday; 3 in 10 women are reported to be victims of sexual violence; and in January alone there were 7,000 cases of measles and 3,500 cases of cholera.
Congo's Health Ministry said Monday that the Ebola epidemic has now exceeded 1,000 cases, with a death toll of 629.
Fore said about 30 percent of the cases are children, and UNICEF has identified about 1,000 children who have been orphaned or left unaccompanied while their parents are isolated in Ebola treatment wards.
UNICEF and its partners are providing psycho-social support, food and material assistance to the children, she said.
In the major city of Bunia close to the epidemic's center, Fore said U.N. and Red Cross officials visited a kindergarten where Ebola survivors who cannot get the virus were caring for orphaned and unaccompanied children.
The U.N. officials also visited Goma, Beni and Butembo and the capital Kinshasa where Lowcock said they had “extremely constructive talks'' with Congo's new president, Felix Tshisekedi.
"We were encouraged by the new president'' who said he would like to work closely with the U.N. on humanitarian issues and problems related to the millions of displaced people, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs said.
"Congo is a country where progress is possible,'' Lowcock said, pointing to lower infant mortality, more children in school and Kinshasa becoming a modern African capital.