The lives of half a million children in the Horn of Africa are at risk, international aid agencies said as the worst drought in decades forces thousands of people to flee their homes each day.
High food prices and the driest years since the early 1950s have pushed many poor families in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti into desperate need, UNICEF said.
"We have over two million children who are malnourished. Half a million of these children are in a life-threatening condition at this stage - a 50% increase over 2009 figures," UNICEF spokesman Marixie Mercado said.
Child malnutrition rates in some camps are at least 45%, triple the emergency threshold, Mercado said. Child mortality rates are also very high.
"At one camp in Ethiopia it is above the emergency threshold of four deaths per 10,000 children per day and that is also the case in the Turkana district of Kenya," she said.
UNICEF has appealed for $31.9 million to help treat seriously malnourished children across the region over the next three months. It plans to set up child immunisation campaigns, especially against measles, which can be deadly in unvaccinated children, and provide safe water and better sanitation.
Children dying on way to camps
The number of people in need of food assistance across the Horn of Africa region is expected to rise to 10 million from previous forecasts of 6 million, the World Food Programme said.
This is putting pressure on the UN agency's $477 million budget for the region, already facing a shortfall of 40%.
In Ethiopia, the WFP anticipates that 3.5 million people will be hit by the drought and anticipates an equal number of people to have been affected in Kenya by August.
There, the cost of a 90 kg bag of maize rose by 160% year on year in June to 4,000 shillings ($44), it said.
Drought and fighting have also put about 2.85 million people - a third of Somalia's population - in need of humanitarian assistance, WFP spokesman Emilia Casella said.
Earlier this week al Shabaab, which controls central and southern parts of Somalia, lifted a ban on humanitarian agencies supplying food aid to millions of Somalis, which had pushed increasing numbers across the border in search of relief.
Since the start of the year 54,000 Somalis have fled across the border into Ethiopia, with more than 1,700 people crossing daily in recent weeks, piling pressure on makeshift camps that are struggling to handle the inflow.
In neighbouring Kenya, some 1,400 Somalis are arriving every day, of which 80 percent are women and children. Some refugees are said to have walked up to 30 days to reach the camps, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.
(Reuters Health, Caroline Copley, July 2011)