The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warns that hundreds of thousands of children affected by the devastating cyclone that hit Bangladesh two weeks ago are at risk of diarrhea, acute respiratory infection and other cold related diseases.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA that UNICEF says it is beginning a mass distribution of fortified food to malnourished children and vulnerable women on Saturday.

The UN Children's Fund says children are most at risk when disaster strikes.  It says about half of the 8.4 million people affected by Cyclone Sidr are children.

It reports an estimated 300,000 children under the age of five are living throughout the disaster zone in makeshift camps with their families.  It says they are surviving on meager food and water.  They lack proper shelter or access to basic needs.

UNICEF Communications Officer for the South Asia Region, Katey Grusovin, says the challenge is to get to the victims as quickly as possible.

"It is not just about providing food because of the acute and chronic malnutrition rates there, which have pre-existed the cyclone," she explained.  "But, it is also making sure that they get the right micro-nutrients, vitamins, iron and so forth to strengthen them, to boost their immune system so that they can fight off the prospect of disease, which is a really real threat in this critical phase, in the aftermath of the cyclone striking two weeks ago." 

Outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia, and typhoid have been reported in the media.  UNICEF says the risk of water borne diseases is high as people resort to drinking and cooking with water from rivers and canals polluted with storm debris and the remains of dead animals.

Grusovin says the already high prevalence of chronic and acute malnutrition among children in Bangladesh makes them even more susceptible to illness.

"Now that people and families have been displaced from their homes, they have lost livestock. They have lost grain stores.  They have lost their houses.  They have lost everything.  There are obviously poor access to food issues.  It means market prices will rise.  But, it means the immediate need is to actually get high energy food out there to kind of mitigate disease, because if you are not fed properly, you have less of a resistance of your immune system to diseases," she added. 

On Saturday, UNICEF and its partners began a mass distribution of high-energy biscuits and other essential foods to children under three years of age, and pregnant and lactating women in the six most severely affected districts.

UNICEF Official Grusovin says the agency also is working to tackle long-term malnutrition and address the expected rise in malnutrition rates over the next three to six months.  She says UNICEF will distribute supplementary feeding for about 340,000 children under age five and approximately 124,000 vulnerable women to stave off further deterioration in their health.