UN food chief: famine relief focus on youngest

September 23, 2011 - 7:15 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The World Food Program is moving to address hunger among the most vulnerable in famine-ravaged Horn of Africa — young children and their mothers, the U.N. food chief said Friday.

World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran told The Associated Press that the agency is concentrating especially on children 2 years old and younger, airlifting into the region 244 metric tons of a highly fortified peanut butter-like food paste made from nuts.

She explained that the paste, and another one made from chickpeas, are easy to feed small children. Both come in envelope-type packages that are opened by ripping off a corner. The paste can then be squeezed into the child's mouth, she said, and it doesn't need to be refrigerated or be mixed with water.

Sheeran said hunger in East Africa has become especially dramatic among young children, with overwhelmed mothers being forced to decide which of their children are likely to survive.

In some cases, "mothers are leaving behind children on the road to die while trying to get their families to the feeding centers," Sheeran said.

Children with malnutrition who survive run the risk of "stunting of the brain," a condition Sheeran said is irreversible and will affect their future development.

Sheeran spoke on the eve of a "mini summit" on the humanitarian response in the Horn of Africa being held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting.

Among those expected at the daylong meeting are U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, new U.N. General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh; Prime Ministers Raila A. Odinga of Kenya and Abdiweli Mohamed Ali of Somalia; Ethiopian Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

The United Nations says tens of thousands of people have died in East Africa and the grave humanitarian situation is likely to worsen in the coming months. Millions of people currently are suffering from the drought and famine and 750,000 people are at risk of death over the next four months in Somalia alone.

The U.N.'s World Food Program says it currently reaching around 7.4 million people in East Africa and is working to increase its assistance to help 10.9 million people in the region.

The program also has a major relief project under way in flood-ravaged southern Pakistan, where it aims to reach 500,000 people this month with general food rations and highly fortified, locally-produced foods for young children.