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Eritrea: New report indicates severe levels of malnutrition

ASMARA, 17 Dec 2002 (IRIN) - A statistical analysis conducted by the UN Childrenís Fund (UNICEF) of a number of nutritional surveys carried out in Eritrea in the last six months indicates that 2.8 million Eritreans - over half the population - are experiencing pre-famine conditions.

One-fifth of the population is immediately confronting food shortages that are leading to critical levels of malnutrition among children.

The statistical analysis, released at the weekend, indicated that malnutrition levels have reached critical or emergency conditions in three of six provinces in the country, Anseba, in the northern centre of the country, Gash Barka, in the west, and Northern Red Sea in the northeast.

The World Health Organisation defines a situation as critical when more than 15 percent of children under five are acutely malnourished, according to certain measures of weight versus height.

The situation in the Northern Red Sea province, which has faced chronic drought for several years, has worsened significantly in recent months. A recent survey of that province found that 23-27 percent of children there were experiencing acute malnutrition. Of particular concern in that region, according to nutritional experts, is the fact that a larger proportion of older children (from four to five years) were found to be more malnourished than those from age one to three years.

According to the statistical analysis, over 200,000 malnourished women and children in the country need immediate emergency food aid to save their lives. At the moment, the UNís World Food Program says it has 50,000 mt of food aid carried over from last year, but still needs another 210,000 mt to meet the needs of the entire vulnerable population.
"We are late and unfortunately Iím afraid that we are too late," said Christian Balslev-Olesen, the director of UNICEFís operations in Eritrea.

According to UNICEFís analysis, the severe lack of food among pastoral and semi-pastoral groups has lead to famine-like conditions. More than 90,000 animal livestock have died in the past six months in the Northern and Southern Red Sea provinces, according to government figures.

UNICEFís analysis calls for a well-targeted and quickly implemented emergency food distribution programme over the next few weeks to avoid a preventable and alarmingly sharp rise in mortality, particularly among children.

"It seems as if we havenít really learned the lesson of how important it is to have well-organised interventions ready before children die in front of the cameras," said Balslev-Olesen. "Iím afraid we could be facing the same situation as in the Ď80s where the intervention came too late."