Every day 1,500 children and their parents arrive at Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp from Somalia.
It is too late to save many of them and others who respond to treatment may not live long. The more seriously a child is malnourished and for the longer time, the higher their risk of disease.
About 65,000 Somali refugee children are severely malnourished, according to the latest figures from the United Nations. And another 320,000 are moderately malnourished which can have lifelong effects.
What is he worst drought in 60 years is causing a ‘children’s famine’, said the World Food Programme’s Josette Sheeran, who earlier this week called the dust tracks tens of thousands of Somalis are trekking in search of food ‘roads of death’.
“Over half the women I talked to had to leave children to die or had children die,” Sheeran said. “In the Horn of Africa we could lose a generation.”
Because children’s bodies are still growing, they can’t fight the effects of starvation as well as adults.
“In the short term you see rapid and extreme weight loss,” said Chris Tidey, from the United Nations Children’s Fund. “They have skin rashes, and their skin gets black, blotchy spots that flake off and are very painful,” he told The Toronto Star. “Their legs and feet swell, it’s very hard for them to walk. I saw one little boy whose foot was so painful he lost (control) when the doctor touched it very lightly.”
Without treatment, malnutrition triggers organ failure and then death. But in times of harsh drought and famine, babies whose mothers are malnourished can start to starve to death even before they are born. If they do survive, these children are at higher risk of heart problems and mental illness
But starvation may begin even before birth during periods of extreme drought and famine. Studies have shown the children of malnourished mothers are susceptible to chronic heart disease and severe mental illnesses, their sight may be damaged from vitamin deficiency and their growth stunted.
Of all the east African countries Somalia is suffering most because a civil war between the Islamist al-Shabaab militia, and a weak, UN-backed transitional government has blocked aid workers from delivering supplies.
“The situation for children is appalling,” said Save the Children’s Alfonso Daniels, talking about Puntland, in northern Somalia. “We’re giving them high-nutrition food, but malnutrition cases have risen from 3,500 to 6,000 in the last two weeks and we’re running out of supplies.”