Millions on the ‘roads to death’ as famine spreads in E. Africa

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the photographic images of hunger-ravaged babies and children in the East African nation of Somalia are worth the world’s conscience.

No one — other than the most evil or heartless — can look at the bulging eyes, sunken cheeks, protruding rib cage and stick-thin arms of seven-month-old Mihag Gedi Farah, as captured in an Associated Press picture, and not experience a deep sense of shame. An innocent child could die from hunger. Mihag, being cradled by his mother in a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee in Kenya, weighs seven pounds. But he may be one of the lucky ones.

There are an estimated 800,000 children who are in danger of dying because food, medical aid and other assistance have not reached them in drought-ravaged parts of Somalia. The United Nations estimates there are 3.7 million people in that civil war-torn country affected by the drought, and another 8 million in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.

Plane loads of urgently needed nutritional supplements to treat the malnourished children began landing in Somalia this week, but whether relief organizations will be able to continue operating in the region is anybody’s guess. That’s because Somalia has been embroiled in conflict for two decades, since the last leader was overthrown by warlords who then turned on each other, according to the Associated Press. Islamist militant groups have spent the last few years battling the weak U.N.-backed government in an attempt to overthrow it.

The wire service reports that Al-Shabab, the most dangerous militant group in Somalia, has said it will not allow aid organizations to operate in its territories, thus exacerbating the drought crisis. Indeed, there were clashes between the militants and government troops on the day the aid began arriving.

The World Food Program estimates that 11.3 million people need help across drought-hit regions in East Africa.

Infectious diseases

Refugees streaming across the border from Somalia into northern Kenya have created the perfect storm for infectious diseases. UNICEF is trying to vaccinate more than 300,000 children in an emergency program designed to prevent an outbreak of polio and malaria.

A coordination conference hosted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization was held in Kenya Wednesday, but until all the industrialized countries recognize the enormity of the crisis, the death toll will continue to mount.

The U.N. is attempting to secure $1.6 billion in aid in the next 12 months, with $300 million of that coming in the next three months. But, with the global economy in turmoil and the United States and European nations struggling with their own domestic challenges, the prospect of meeting the needs of the 11 million people on the “roads to death” seems bleak.

The U.S. has committed more than $450 million in emergency assistance, but other countries need to step up to do their part.

Seven-month-old Mihag’s odds for survival have been put at 50-50.

His mother, Asiah Dagane, told the Associated Press in a soft voice, “In my mind, I’m not well. My baby is sick. In my head, I am also sick.”

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