NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of children have been infected by measles in famine-threatened Somalia, already hit by an epidemic of cholera, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said on Tuesday, as it launched a campaign to vaccinate some 360,000 children in one month.
The United Nations is racing to avoid a repeat of famine in the drought-hit Horn of African nation where more than 250,000 people died of starvation in 2011.
"We know only too well from the 2011 famine that measles, combined with malnutrition and displacement, is an especially lethal combination for children," Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF’s representative in Somalia, said in a statement.
"Among vaccine-preventable diseases, none is more deadly than measles."
Almost 5,700 cases of suspected measles have been reported across Somalia since the start of 2017, more than the total number of cases in 2016, it said.
Measles, a viral respiratory infection that spreads through air and contact with infected mucus and saliva, thrives in congested, unsanitary displacement camps, which have mushroomed across the country as people flee drought.
Children suffering from severe acute malnutrition are nine times more likely to die from diseases like measles than healthy ones, Lauwerier said.
More than 6 million Somalis - half of the population - need emergency aid, including close to 1 million acutely malnourished children.
Many of the children have never been immunized before as they come from remote areas health workers often cannot reach due to conflict.
Somalia has been mired in civil war since 1991 and continues to face an Islamist insurgency.
The vaccination campaign is starting this week in the central city of Baidoa, where large numbers have been arriving in search of aid - at least 70,000 in March, UNICEF said.
The number of deaths from measles has fallen by 79 percent worldwide since 2000, thanks mainly to mass vaccination campaigns, but nearly 400 children still die from the disease every day, the World Health Organization says.
(Reporting by Daniel Wesangula; Editing by Katy Migiro and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)