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350,000 severely malnourished children face death in drought-stricken East Africa

Aid agency Concern says international donors are not responding to desperate pleas for help

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Ngirethi Ekakutan holds her younger sister Mary as she has her measurements taken at a malnutrition clinic in Lekwasimyen in Northern Kenya’s Turkana province on Tuesday. Photo: Lisa Murray

Ngirethi Ekakutan holds her younger sister Mary as she has her measurements taken at a malnutrition clinic in Lekwasimyen in Northern Kenya’s Turkana province on Tuesday. Photo: Lisa Murray

Women wait for their children to receive treatment for malnutrition in Lekwasimyen in Northern Kenya's Turkana province on Tuesday. Photo: Lisa Murray

Women wait for their children to receive treatment for malnutrition in Lekwasimyen in Northern Kenya's Turkana province on Tuesday. Photo: Lisa Murray

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Ngirethi Ekakutan holds her younger sister Mary as she has her measurements taken at a malnutrition clinic in Lekwasimyen in Northern Kenya’s Turkana province on Tuesday. Photo: Lisa Murray

In the worst cases, when the malnutrition swells the children’s entire bodies and bloats their faces into round moons, desperate parents cut their flesh to try to drain the gathering fluid.

Now a gravely ill child risks infection, possibly HIV, in addition to the dreaded ‘kwashiorkor’ which, if left untreated, will kill or leave lifelong disability.

Kwashiorkor, a complex form of malnutrition, is still relatively rare in northern Kenya but public health workers are on high alert for it as the drought that has cost the region four rainy seasons drags on.

Patrick Lokitela, who works at the Sasame Dispensary in Turkana County, Kenya, winces as he speaks of the children it afflicts.

The dispensary can help the underweight and moderate to severely malnourished children, whose mothers walk for hours carrying them to the weekly clinic
for supplementary feeding. But kwashiorkor needs urgent, specialised treatment in a regional centre.

“All the legs are swollen, the upper limbs, the hands, and the face becomes a kind of moonface,” Mr Lokitela explains. “It’s painless and if you push the flesh with your thumbs, it makes a pit.”

Outreach workers explain the distinguishing characteristics on visits to the rural communities to try to deter them from administering traditional remedies.

That means cutting the children, often with razors that are certainly unsterilised but often not even washed because water is so scarce.

Mr Lokitela is a health and nutrition officer with aid agency Concern. It is warning that 350,000 severely malnourished children face death as the drought and hunger crisis in East Africa escalates.

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Small centres like that at Sasame cannot hope to catch them all and the recurrence rate is increasing as the nutrients from supplied food is lost to diarrhoea caused by drinking from muddy makeshift water holes.

The situation in large parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan is now worse than what preceded the last disaster in 2011 that killed more than a quarter of a million people.

Then, 13 million people needed humanitarian support to survive the resulting famine. Concern says 23 million people need humanitarian support in the region but international donors are not responding.

Four failed rainy seasons in succession have decimated livestock, left pastures barren, destroyed crops and caused widespread hunger and malnutrition.

Disease is spreading and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to migrate in search of grazing land, water and humanitarian aid.

Concern regional director Amina Abdulla said five million children were estimated to be malnourished across the five countries, with 1.6 million of them severely malnourished.

“Without an urgent response and scaling up of the humanitarian support, we risk 350,000 of these children dying,” she said.

Aid has kept starvation at bay so far but Ms Abdulla said 500,000 people were now categorised as being one step away from famine.

The situation is all the more precarious because the limited aid that has been supplied is stretching only half as far normal because of a doubling in the price of imported maize since the war on Ukraine.

“We are seeing a significant increase in the number of children under five requiring emergency treatment but there simply aren’t enough resources to meet the need, particularly in remote areas,” said Arshad Muhammad, Concern’s country director for Kenya.

Barbara White, his counterpart in Ethiopia, said the drought was also taking a major toll there. 

“We focus on building people’s ability to cope with emergencies but this situation is now beyond that and with rains expected to be below average in the coming season, it is a race against time to save people,” she said. 


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