At the time of this writing (August 17, 2011), cholera and measles are killing hundreds of people in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, most of them children already weakened by starvation. The country is experiencing its worst drought in decades, which combined with famine and war has driven hundreds of thousands of Somalis to seek refuge in camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The overflowing camps have pushed many Somalis to the camp peripheries, far away from fresh water and latrines. With the incessant flow of people and lack of clean water, the bacteria that causes cholera and the virus that causes measles have gained a powerful and deadly foothold among these battered escapees from their famine-stricken, anarchic homeland, primarily striking down the youngest and most vulnerable.
According to UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado, quoted by MSNBC, a U.N. fundraising campaign for the Horn of Africa – comprising Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia – was “only half funded” as of August 12, 2011. We have some links at the bottom of this post, if you want to help.
The floods of people must seek help elsewhere because, according to the LA Times, the militant, Al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab (also spelled Shabab) has blocked rescue efforts within Somalia because of suspicion of foreign aid agencies. The besieged Somalis, mostly women and children, have sought to escape the famine, war, and drought by escaping to bordering Ethiopia and Kenya. In Kenya, the 19 square miles of the refugee camp Dadaab now bursts with 372,000 people, according to the Times. Another 1,400 Somalis arrive at the camp every day, according to The Guardian. Aid workers warn that families forced to the fringes of these camps may experience more cholera outbreaks if they can’t be moved to a better location before new rains come.
Back in Somalia, residents from the countryside have also flowed into Mogadishu, where, reports The Guardian, one hospital alone has seen more than 2,000 cases of likely cholera, with almost 200 deaths, most of them children under age five. In neighboring Ethiopia, also home to refugee camps for fleeing Somalis, measles has gained a foothold, leading to several deaths. The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Kenyan Ministry of Health have responded to the disease threat at the Kenyan-Somali border with a cross-border vaccination campaign that specifically targets children living around the Dadaab camp.
The children are the most vulnerable. In some parts of Somalia, 13 of every 10,000 children under age five are dying every day from the combination of malnutrition and disease. Cholera, caused by a bacterial toxin that produces severe diarrhea, can kill within hours and is a critical care emergency in people already suffering from starvation. More than 100,000 people die from cholera every year, even though the majority of cases can be successfully treated with rehydration and replacement salts. Access to clean water is critical to preventing the spread of the disease. Of great concern, new strains of cholera have emerged in Asia and Africa that seem to be even more severe and cause more fatalities than the two known strains of the bacteria.
The measles virus hasn’t changed at all and remains deadly, especially to those already weakened in health. Death rates in the Ethiopian camp of Dollo Ado are reportedly increasing as of this writing. According to reports, 10 children under age five are dying every day in one of the four camps that make up the Dollo Ado complex, and the combination of malnutrition and measles is thought to be the primary cause.
What can you do? About half a million children across the region will die in the next few weeks, according to UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado, without more help.
Modern medicine can’t stop the drought, famine, or civil violence and unrest that are driving Somalis from their homeland. But both measles and cholera in Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa can be prevented with appropriate measures that include clean water, sufficient food, basic hygiene, and vaccination.
Links to related fundraising sites:
The U.N. Refugee Agency, fundraising for Somali refugees
U.N. campaign for the Horn of Africa, including the option to send a simple text message to donate $5.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."