Africa famine experts: 800,000 children may die

Mihag Gedi Farah, a seven-month-old child with a weight of 3.4kg, is held by his mother in a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in the town of Dadaab, Kenya, Tuesday, July 26, 2011. AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

DADAAB, Kenya - Mihag Gedi Farah is 7 months old, and weighs as little as a newborn with the weathered skin of an old man.

His mother managed to get him to a field hospital in a Kenyan refugee camp after a weeklong odyssey, but the baby's anguished eyes, hollow cheeks and fragile limbs show just how severe Somalia's famine is becoming.

Officials have warned that 800,000 children could die across the Horn of Africa, and aid workers are rushing to bring help to dangerous and previously unreached regions of drought-ravaged Somalia.

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Mihag's sunken face brings new urgency to their efforts and raises concerns about how many children like him remain in Somalia, far from the feeding tubes and doctors at this Kenyan refugee camp.

His fragile skin crumples like thin leather under the pressure of his mother's hands, as she touches the hollows where a baby's chubby cheeks should be.

Sirat Amine, a nurse nutritionist with the International Rescue Committee, puts the little boy's odds of survival at just 50-50. Mihag weighs just 7 pounds, 8 ounces when a boy his age should weigh nearly three times that.

"We never tell the mother, of course, that their baby might not make it," the nurse says. "We try to give them hope."

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Mihag is the youngest of seven children in his family. His mother brought him along with four of his siblings on the journey from Kismayo to northern Kenya after all their sheep and cattle died because of drought.

Like the tens of thousands of other Somalis fleeing starvation, the family traveled by foot, other times catching rides with passing trucks, cars or buses.

His mother, Asiah Dagane, isn't sure of her age but appears in her mid-30s. She sits at her baby's bedside with little to say: "In my mind I'm not well. My baby is sick. In my head I am also sick," she says softly.

The United Nations estimates that more 11 million people in East Africa are affected by the drought, with 3.7 million in Somalia among the worst-hit because of the ongoing civil war in the country.

Somalia's prolonged drought devolved into famine in part because neither the Somali government nor many aid agencies can fully operate in areas controlled by al Qaeda-linked militants, and the U.N. is set to declare all of southern Somalia a famine zone as of Aug. 1.

Aid organizations including the U.N. World Food Program have not been able to access areas under the control of the al-Shabab militants, who have killed humanitarian workers and banned the WFP.

The U.N. has said it will airlift emergency rations later this week in an effort to try and reach at least 175,000 of the 2.2 million Somalis who have not been helped yet.

The new feeding efforts in the four districts of southern Somalia near the border with Kenya and Ethiopia could begin by Thursday, slowing the flow of tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes in hope of reaching aid.

But the WFP hasn't operated there for more than two years, and must find and rehire former employees to help with distribution. Transportation is also a substantial obstacle, as land mines have severed key roads and a landing strip has fallen into disrepair.

Donations are also desperately needed to sustain the aid effort in the Horn of Africa: The U.N. wants to gather $1.6 billion in the next 12 months, with $300 million of that coming in the next three months.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said a coordination conference is due to be held Wednesday in the Kenyan capital.

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