UN warns of rising death rates among Somali children as disease takes a toll

Somali refugee women and children wait to be registered at a transit centre in Dollo Ado. Photo: UNHCR/L.Padoan

16 August 2011 – Death rates among Somali refugees who have entered Ethiopia to seek succour from famine has reached alarming levels, the United Nations refugee agency reported today, saying that while malnutrition was the greatest concern, a suspected outbreak of measles was responsible for many deaths.

An assessment of the mortality rate in one of four refugee camps at the Dollo Ado complex in southern Ethiopia found that since the Kobe camp opened in June, an average of 10 children under the age of five have died every day, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said. The Kobe camp hosts 250,000 refugees.

“The combination of disease and malnutrition was what caused similar death rates in previous famine crises in the region,” said Adrian Edwards, UNHCR spokesperson, told reporters in Geneva, adding that a measles vaccination campaign targeting children between the ages of six month and 15 years in Kobe camp was completed yesterday. Vaccinations will continue in the other camps, he added.

The majority of refugees arriving in Ethiopia from Somalia are from rural areas and the camps may be the first time they have had access to health facilities, according to Mr. Edwards, who added that the priority for all humanitarian partners is to promote awareness of the health and nutrition programmes available for refugees.

UNHCR is already working with refugee leaders and outreach workers to raise awareness of measles symptoms and promote hygiene.

Elsewhere in Ethiopia, some 17,500 refugees from Somalia have crossed into the Gode and Afder areas over the past six weeks, according to a joint field mission led by UNHCR and the Government.

Most of the newly arrived refugees have come from the Bakool and Bay regions, while others hail from the Gedo and Hiran regions. The new refugees, 95 per cent of whom are women and children, many in very poor nutritional and health states, will immediately receive a one-month food ration.

The joint mission voiced concern that a lack of shelter and health care, poor sanitation and overcrowding could lead to disease outbreaks and recommended that essential drugs be rushed to two areas.

Meanwhile, the last of three UNHCR flights to transport humanitarian aid into Somalia landed in Mogadishu on Saturday, completing the delivery of 100 tons of emergency relief supplies. Saturday’s flight carried 45,000 boxes of high-energy biscuits, plastic sheeting for shelter, sleeping mats and blankets, jerry cans and kitchen sets.

On the same day the agency distributed some 500 emergency assistance packages to residents of Al Adala camp – near the Mogadishu airport – which is sheltering some 2,000 displaced Somali families or approximately 13,000 individuals. Before the current crisis, the Somali capital hosted some 370,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), who have now been joined by an additional 100,000 who flocked into the capital in June and July from the famine-hit southern areas in search of food, water, shelter and medical assistance.

Many said they were forced to leave the elderly or disabled relatives behind fearing that they would not survive the arduous journey to Mogadishu, which entailed walking for days without food or water. Some said they had been confronted by Al Shabaab militants at roadblocks and discouraged from travelling to Mogadishu.

The UNHCR team described the conditions in Al Adala site as “grim and dire.” Voices of crying children, punctuated by heavy coughing, could be heard from all corners. Some children lay helpless on the ground, apparently suffering from measles.

“We plan further distributions of emergency aid in Al Adala and other IDP sites throughout Mogadishu,” said Mr. Edwards. “The entire cargo of the three airlifts will be handed out to the displaced people in need in the Somali capital before the end of the month,” he added.

In Kenya, UNHCR teams have continued to improve services at the Ifo Extension – which comprises what was previously known as Ifo 2 and Ifo 3 sites – as well as Kambioos camp in the Dadaab refugee complex, according to Mr. Edwards.

The movement of refugees into Kambioos site, initially scheduled for last weekend, has been delayed and is now expected later this week. Since 28 July more than 15,000 Somali refugees have been moved to the new tents in Ifo Extension shelters. In total, the Dadaab camps are now sheltering more than 440,000 Somali refugees.

In a related development, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) today strongly condemned any action that would divert even the smallest amount of food from those at risk of starvation and other vulnerable groups in Somalia.

“WFP would rigorously investigate any allegation of theft of humanitarian food,” Christiane Berthiaume, the WFP spokesperson told reporters in Geneva.

She said the agency had strong controls to ensure effective food aid distribution in Somalia and disputed the scale of food pilfering appearing in some media reports.

“WFP was confident that the vast majority of humanitarian food was reaching starving people in Mogadishu and saving lives every day,” said Ms. Berthiaume. “The ‘thousands of bags’ which would have been looted or stolen, according to an Associated Press story, would equal less than one per cent of one month’s food distribution in Somalia,” she added.


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