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In the Greater Horn of Africa, tens of millions hungry and driven to flee

The staggering numbers include 129,000 people "facing starvation and staring death in the eyes," while 11.9 million children under five likely will face acute malnutrition in 2023.

Conflict, climate and the food crisis have displaced 18 million people in the Greater Horn of Africa region
Conflict, climate and the food crisis have displaced 18 million people in the Greater Horn of Africa region (AN/Ismail Salad Osman Hajji dirir/Unsplash)

GENEVA (AN) — Conflict, climate and the food crisis have displaced 18 million people in seven African nations, where 48 million also face crisis-levels of hunger: skipped meals, depleted savings and lack of assets for making a living.

And a deluge of cholera epidemics, waterborne diseases and climate-related public health emergencies necessitate "urgent action," top-ranking government officials from 11 southern African countries said Friday.

It's been the worst year for cholera in Africa in almost a decade with 13 countries facing an outbreak, the ministers overseeing health, water, sanitation and environmental issues said at a meeting in Malawi's capital Lilongwe.

Malawi's Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda said "robust preparedness, readiness and coordinated responses at border crossings" will be needed to end cholera outbreaks in southern Africa and achieve regional targets in eliminating the disease.

The outbreaks are linked to a litany of health "gaps" such as poor hygiene and inadequate water and sanitation infrastructures. To address them, the ministers urged the creation of an African Union-hosted task force for cross-border issues.

In the Greater Horn of Africa, where most parts are dealing with the worst drought experienced in at least 40 years, 6 million people are at the highest levels of hunger – emergency and catastrophic – and are in dire need of assistance, according to a World Health Organization press briefing.

"We are seeing a surge in disease outbreaks and the highest number of malnourished children in years, with millions of people affected and all this on the back of a deteriorating food insecurity outlook," Liesbeth Aelbrecht, WHO's incident manager for the health crisis in the Greater Horn of Africa, said by videoconference from Nairobi.

The 129,000 people grappling with catastrophic levels of hunger "are facing starvation and staring death in the eyes," Aelbrecht told reporters. "About 11.9 million children under the age of five are likely to face acute malnutrition in 2023."

The combination of malnutrition and disease have a deadly synergistic effect, particularly with measles in children. The U.N. health agency says the region's needs are so great it will cost US$178 million to treat people suffering medical complications from severe malnutrition.

Many of the 18 million people displaced in the region – which includes Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda – are pastoralists who have had to set out in search of food, water, and pasture for any surviving livestock, she said.

Without much water, they're often unable to maintain safe levels of hygiene and sanitation and are at increased risk of disease outbreaks.

Malaria, which is endemic in the region, is the leading cause of death in some areas. It's particularly affected Sudan, where there've been 330,000 cases and 262 deaths reported in the first six weeks of this year.

"What we are seeing today is that the numbers of reported disease outbreaks in the Greater Horn Africa have reached their highest-ever level this century, with health systems in most of the seven countries being hard-pressed to cope," Aelbrecht said. "All seven countries are battling measles outbreaks while there are cholera outbreaks in four countries."

Outbreaks of dengue have been reported in Somalia and Sudan, hepatitis E in South Sudan and Sudan, and meningitis in Ethiopia, she added, all "linked directly to the extreme climate events" – almost two-thirds of the suspected meningitis cases in Ethiopia, for example, were reported from drought-affected regions.