The United Nations and Ethiopia's government are renewing their appeal for emergency food aid in the face of a rapidly developing child malnutrition and hunger crisis. Official estimates of the number of people in dire need have doubled over the past few months. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the next few months could be the worst.

The statistics are grim. They show 4.5 million Ethiopians need emergency food assistance and 75,000 children already suffer from what doctors call 'severe acute malnutrition'. And Bjorn Ljunqvist, Ethiopia country director for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, warns the most difficult period lies ahead.

"The next two months is going to be the most critical, and this is when we need to really rush and mobilize resources," he said.

It has been more than a month since a sudden sharp increase in the number of children dying of starvation alerted authorities and aid groups that drought-induced food shortages had reached the breaking point.

Since then, emergency feeding centers have been overwhelmed with families hoping to save severely malnourished young ones. Simon Mechale, head of Ethiopia's Disaster Preparedness Agency says there is no way to know how many children have died. "I think the immediate danger of deaths, we haven't yet estimated it, but it's from the 75,000 actually which need support. Currently we don't have that information, and our colleagues are in the field now doing that assessment," he said.

United Nations humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Program are joining the government in issuing a fresh appeal to donors for aid increases to meet the expected shortfall.

UNICEF's Bjorn Ljungvist says as many as half of the 75,000 in desperate need could be lost unless aid arrives soon. "The children are in terrible condition. We call it severe acute malnutrition, and if they are in that category, risk of dying increases dramatically. If they don't get any support, between 25 and 50 percent will actually die."

Ljunqvist rejects criticism of Ethiopian authorities for failing to recognize the scale of the food shortages in time to take preventive measures. And he strongly objects to media reports suggesting the country is on the verge of another famine such as the one that killed a million people in the mid 1980s.

The UNICEF official blames the shortages partly on rising prices, partly on lower-than-expected rainfall, and partly on the poor initial response from donor countries who, when the first warning flags went up about a few million starving Ethiopians, were distracted by emergencies in other parts of the world.

"That's a sad thing. A few people in the south, a couple million is not a few people, but it seemed as a very limit crisis by global standards, when you have earthquake in China, and cyclones in Myanmar, so there wasn't a lot of attention to that problem until now the problem starts increasing," he said.

Ljungqvist is pleading with donors to quickly pledge the aid needed to cover the shortfall. "Please help us raise these additional resources and I'm sure we can help the government and the communities to ride out this storm."

Officials estimate Ethiopia needs 300,000 metric tons of emergency food supplies to get through until September, when the next harvest is due. Many humanitarian agencies and aid workers are expressing concern that without a massive infusion of aid to tide the country through July and August, food shortages could quickly spread from rural areas to crowded cities.