The United Nations Children’s Fund has warned an explosion of child death is imminent in the Horn of Africa due to deepening hunger unless urgent action is taken.

Speaking at a news briefing on Tuesday in Geneva, Rania Dagash, the deputy regional director for eastern and southern Africa at UNICEF, said more than 1.7 million children are in urgent need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

In Somalia, he said an estimated 386,000 children are in desperate need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition.

The figure exceeds the 340,000 children who required treatment during the 2011 famine, which claimed 250,000 lives in the country, mainly children.

“I am here today to tell you plainly that, if the world does not widen its gaze from the war in Ukraine and act immediately, an explosion of child deaths is about to happen in the Horn of Africa,” Dagash warned.

She said the three countries have recorded an increased number of admissions of severely malnourished children in the first quarter of this year compared to the first quarter of 2021:

Kenya recorded a 71 percent increase, while Somalia and Ethiopia reported a 48 and 27 percent increase respectively.

In Somalia, there are reports of children being buried along the roadside as their families make desperate, long treks for help. And the worst may be just around the corner, Dagash said.

She said in some of the worst-affected areas in the region, three times as many children have already died from severe acute malnutrition.

Dagash said the war in Ukraine is worsening food insecurity in the region as spiraling global food and fuel prices have left many people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia unable to afford basic necessities.

The Ukraine conflict has also affected the UN agency’s response efforts, as the cost of the life-saving therapeutic food it uses to treat children with severe acute malnutrition is projected to rise by 16 percent globally over the next six months.

This means UNICEF will require an additional $12 million more than expected in the Horn of Africa alone, Dagash said.

With the G7 Leaders’ Summit expected to take place from June 26 to 28, she urged those attending to commit to new funding to save lives.

“Focus on Ukraine cannot lead to neglect of other crises and ultimately more loss of life,” she said.

The hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa follows four successive seasons of failed rains in the region, a situation not seen in at least 40 years.

The World Food Program estimates cereal production in East Africa could potentially decrease by 16 percent year-on-year during the 2022 harvest season because of high fertilizer and fuel prices.

The UN agency expects 2022 cereal production to be about 37.8 million metric tons, down from 45.2 million in 2021.

Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan are expected to record the highest decline in cereal production at 21, 12 and 16 percent respectively.

“Reduced domestic cereal availability will likely result in more food imports to bridge the gap, putting additional pressure on already weak local currency, causing higher food inflation in the short run and adding to food security concerns in the region,” the WFP said.

The UN agency said the number of food-insecure people in the region could rise to 100 million by the end of the year.

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