At least 35 children have died in recent weeks due to drought and conflict in Ethiopia's northeastern Afar region, according to a local hospital and the medical charity Doctors Without Borders.
The announcement on Thursday came days after a government minister denied that people have died due to food shortages.
“Thirty-five children have died in the last eight weeks alone and more than two-thirds of those patients died within 48 hours of admission,” Doctors Without Borders said in a statement noting an escalating crisis in the mostly arid region.
“What scares us most at this point is that we are only beginning to see the very tip of the iceberg, and already it is overwhelming,” said Raphael Veicht, the group's emergency coordinator in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia is facing one of the worst droughts in the past 40 years following consecutive failed rains in the Horn of Africa. The Afar region also saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war that erupted in Ethiopia's neighbouring Tigray region in November 2020.
Hussein Adem, director of Dubti Hospital in Afar, the largest in the region and serving more than one million people, confirmed the children's deaths to The Associated Press and said that people flooding into the hospital are coming from conflict areas bordering Tigray.
“The number of malnourished and sick children arriving at our hospital is rising steadily. Hence, the mortality rate among children is also rising,” he said, adding his team is trying to send some to other healthcare centres.
“Our hospital ward is full, so we are using tents. Even that is getting full, so we are treating some of them in the corridors.”
Both United Nations and Ethiopian government figures indicate that millions of Ethiopians in other parts of the country also face food shortages.
Fitsum Assefa, Ethiopia's minister of planning and development, told cabinet members on Monday that 7.4 million people in the South, Oromia and Somali regions need food assistance.
“An additional 5.2 million in Tigray, around 600,000 in Afar and 8.7 million in the Amhara region also need food assistance and are receiving assistance both by the government and donors,” she said. But she denied the loss of human lives, calling the efforts a “big success”.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a tweet on February 25 warned that drought-induced hunger in the Somali and Borana areas of the East African nation was “causing a loss of life among children and the elderly”.
He added, “If we wait for the onset of the rainy season, we will lose many of our citizens.”
On Tuesday, the UN appealed for USD 847 million to help support 4.2 million people, half of them children, in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti.
“The nutrition situation in the region is extremely concerning as malnutrition rates are increasing, particularly in Ethiopia, and in the arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya and Somalia,” it said.