UN warns cholera epidemic in Somalia may spread amid famine

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The UN warned Friday that a cholera epidemic in Somalia, which has claimed at least 181 lives in one Mogadishu hospital this year, could quickly spread as thousands flee famine in the south.

"The concern here is the root cases of cholera, and that is related to water and sanitation. And with the IDPs and population movement, this increases the risk of further spread of the disease, and that is our fear," Michel Yao, a public health advisor at the UN health agency, told reporters.

"With cholera, everyone is at risk, but the conditions are perfect for transmission now in Mogadishu," World Health Organisation spokesman Tarik Jasarevic added.

According to WHO figures, around 4,272 cases of acute watery diarrhoea were reported in one Mogadishu hospital since the beginning of the year, with 181 related deaths, "some two to three times" what was observed a year ago.

Half of the victims were children under two, it said.

Children are particularly vulnerable, the UN's children agency said.

"The massive influx of people into Mogadishu and the rising number of cases of acute watery diarrhea in crowded urban areas places malnourished children at grave threat from cholera, which is a deadly and contagious disease," UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said.

"Right now you have around half a million children at imminent risk of death if they do not get (food) help within weeks.

"But beyond being a malnutrition crisis, it is also a crisis for child survival generally because children who are acutely malnourished are that much more susceptible to cholera ... all in the context of massive displacement and poor water and sanitation," Mercado said.

The United Nations also warned that lack of funding was starting to limit the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that around half of the 4.56 million people who have been targeted for food assistance in Ethiopia would get reduced rations due to lack of funds.

"We are ringing the alarm, we need this funding," said Byrs.

"Because of the lack of funding, and the difficulty of distributing, these rations will be incomplete," said the spokeswoman, adding that some $18 million would be required to cover the shortfall.

According to the most recent UN figures, only 48 percent of the requested $2.4 billion for humanitarian assistance to some 12.4 million people in the famine-stricken Horn of Africa has been received.

"Money needs to come," Byrs said.

© 2011 AFP

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