FILE - An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, nurses her newly born children inside a clinic in the Hamdayat camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in eastern Kassala state, Sudan, Dec. 15, 2020.
FILE - An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, nurses her newly born children inside a clinic in the Hamdayat camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in eastern Kassala state, Sudan, Dec. 15, 2020.

GENEVA - United Nations agencies are warning that tens of thousands of children in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province are at risk of death from starvation and malnutrition-related illnesses because aid agencies cannot reach the region with humanitarian relief.

Conflict-ridden Tigray remains off-limits to United Nations and private aid agencies despite Ethiopian government promises they would have unfettered access to the region.

UNICEF spokesman James Elder told reporters Friday in Geneva the region is on the brink of famine, adding that, without immediate assistance, Tigray will face a crisis not seen in a decade.

Elena, 7, center, lines up with other displaced Tigrayans to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 9, 2021.
Food Aid Not Reaching Tigray, People Dying, UN Says
More than 350,000 people are facing near famine-like conditions and many will not survive without immediate humanitarian assistance, World Food Program warns

“We are seeing more and more young children and babies slide dangerously close to sickness and potential death from malnutrition, so we have rung alarm bells and alarm bells and here we are now,” he said. “We now have the largest number of people classified as food-insecure in a decade since Somalia. And, as I say that, [there is the] very real risk of deaths of tens of thousands of children.”

An estimated quarter-million people died in the devastating 2010-2011 Somali famine, more than half of them children under the age of five. The United Nations says more than 350,000 people in Tigray are on the verge of famine. It warns an estimated 33,000 severely malnourished children in inaccessible areas are at high risk of death.

The World Health Organization says its teams and mobile health clinics are ready to go into Tigray and administer care but have been turned away by the warring parties.

WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said access to the region is key to tackling what she called a public health emergency.

“Malnourished children are more likely to contract ... any of the infectious diseases, and die of it, such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and measles. Malaria and malnutrition is a lethal combination,” she said. “So, we are over 350 severe acute malnutrition cases among children under five years of age last week only. That was just last week, 18 of them with complications.”

Harris said the WHO is kicking off a cholera vaccination campaign Saturday, as the disease thrives during the rainy season, which begins this month. She said 4,000 people will be inoculated as a preventive measure as Tigray has had outbreaks in the past.

But the campaign’s success requires safe access by health workers, she added.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered troops into the region in November to neutralize leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which ruled the continent’s second most populous country for nearly three decades.

Ahmed, recipient of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said he sent troops to the area in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.

The prime minister promised the violence would be short-lived, but the fighting continues and atrocities such as rape are increasing.