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Horn of Africa food crisis and health risks

Severe drought has resulted in a food crisis affecting more than 15 million people across Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. These people face increased risk of starvation and disease. Half of them need urgent assistance. Food distribution has begun in most of the affected areas, but food alone will not prevent disease and deaths.

Clean water, adequate sanitation, immunization, health education and access to primary care health services are also key to curbing disease and death, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and to treat those who are ill.

In the Horn of Africa, people are at increased risk of malaria, diarrhoea including cholera, acute respiratory infections, tuberculosis, measles and meningococcal meningitis. Experience from previous droughts has shown that measles, when combined with malnutrition, is the biggest risk for children, sometimes accounting for up to half of under-five mortality. Estimated immunization coverage for many areas in the region is low, with, for example, Somalia at 30%, Djibouti at 64%, and Ethiopia at 66%. To prevent major outbreaks of measles, at least 95% of all children between 6 months and 15 years of age need to be vaccinated.

Preliminary assessments show that 20 out of every 100 children under the age of five in the region are suffering from malnutrition, putting them at increased risk of death. This is above WHO's emergency threshold of 15%. Children who are severely malnourished require special care.

Other vulnerable groups include people with HIV/AIDS, whose immune systems are already weakened. Malnourished women who are pregnant or who are breastfeeding are at increased risk of anaemia. This can lead to complications and death during childbirth.

WHO has begun supporting the countries' Ministries of Health in helping to coordinate the health response of the many humanitarian actors already working in the region. WHO is helping to promote disease prevention and surveillance, monitor malnutrition to help identify cases of moderate malnutrition before they become severe, train health workers in proper diagnosis and treatment of disease and malnutrition and deliver essential drugs and medical supplies.

WHO is also working with UNICEF and Ministries of Health to promote immunization campaigns, and to deliver measles immunization and vitamin A supplementation.

WHO's estimated financial requirement is a total of US$ 12.3 million. This would support coverage of the health needs of people at risk over the next nine months. WHO has already received an initial US$ 1.5 million from the recently revised United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to boost its health work in the short-term.

The remaining US$10.8 million is being requested through the UN Consolidated Appeal (CAP) for the Horn of Africa that is being launched today.

For more information contact:

Fadela Chaib
Communications Officer, WHO
Telephone: + 41 22 791 3228