Measles outbreak compounds famine relief efforts in horn of Africa

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The White House convened a call with faith-based organizations Wednesday afternoon to discuss efforts in the horn of Africa to combat the extensive famine brought on by a severe drought in the region, the worst seen in decades. The famine has already claimed the lives of approximately 29,000 children.

The call included U.S. envoy participants who recently visited Dadaab, Kenya – home to three Somali refugee camps.

Dadaab and its northern neighbor Wajir flank Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia, which is bearing the brunt of the drought and famine. Refugees are flooding camps in the two towns in search of food, shelter and opportunity. One of the camps in Dadaab, originally meant to house about 90,000 refugees when it was built several years ago, now has nearly 500,000 inhabitants, and more are arriving daily, call participants said. The drought is placing approximately  4.5 million Somalis at risk of starvation.

Compounding matters, said former Sen. Bill Frist who also joined on the trip to Kenya, is a measles outbreak which is easily infecting children weakened by malnutrition. Reports from Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado complex of four refugee camps in Ethiopia – which has absorbed more than 78,000 Somali refugees so far this year – state an alarming increase in measles deaths.  At the Kobe camp an average of 10 children under the age of five have been dying every day, due to a combination of measles and malnutrition brought on by famine. Malnutrition makes people vulnerable to other infectious diseases as well.

Frist said they are immunizing and testing for measles at the refugee camps in north eastern Kenya as refugees from Somalia come in, in attempts to stay ahead of the epidemic there.

“Kenya is a hard place to operate – with a lot of people in acute need,” said head of the U.S. Agency for International Development Dr. Rajiv Shah who also participated on the trip to Kenya. He said the U.S. government was doing all it can to make the lives of aid workers on the ground there easier.   

Special Assistant to the President Gayle Smith said the drought will likely go on for months, but hopefully rain will come soon or the famine could go on even longer.

Call participants stressed the important role that Somali non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local organizations and the Somali-American community play, as they are able to gain access to Somalia and offer aid to the people there. “We are trying to use every one of those to get access to those in need,” said Shah. The U.S. government and U.S. NGOs have struggled to assist as many people as possible in Somalia, which has strained relations with the U.S.  Shah also commended those working on the ground in Somalia, noting the enormous risk and effort they are undertaking.

“It’s a dangerous place,” he said.

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