Bentley's column describes the tragedy of East Africa's drought

August 30, 2011




Peggy Bentley, PhD, professor of nutrition at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the School’s associate dean for global health, recently wrote a guest column for the UNC Global newsletter. We reprint her essay here.

It’s late August in Chapel Hill, a very busy time, but also one of promise and potential. The energy of new and returning students is always one of the wonderful things about this time of the year. But while the UNC community embarks on a new academic year, the world faces a humanitarian crisis.

East Africa is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years. As a result, crops are failing, livestock are dying, and food prices are skyrocketing. As many as 12 million people across four countries — Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti — are threatened with starvation. Somalia is the worst affected, and famine has been declared in three regions of the country, two near the capital of Mogadishu and another to the north.

As most of you have seen in the heartbreaking images accompanying news of this crisis, young children are particularly vulnerable when food is scarce. Because their immune systems are not fully developed, they have a higher risk of death. As children become more malnourished, they are less able to fight an infectious illness, such as diarrheal diseases, measles, or respiratory infection.

Children who are severely malnourished also suffer from dehydration and low glucose levels which, if not addressed, can result in heart failure. A child at this stage needs a therapeutic feeding program of nutritionally-fortified foods given every several hours and over the course of days. The World Food Programme is distributing several types of these foods in the region, including a corn-soy blend served as porridge; ready-to-use foods containing protein, fat and sugar; wheat-based high-energy biscuits; and specially formulated powders with the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals that are sprinkled on food.

Women who are extremely malnourished have difficulty producing breast milk, but they can respond very quickly to therapeutic feeding and begin lactating within 24 hours so that mother and baby can recover together.

The magnitude of this crisis is overwhelming — the United Nations says 400,000 people, mostly children, may die in the immediate term — and it cannot be explained simply as a food shortage resulting from a lack of rainfall. Rather, it is the result of a complex combination of political, economic and environmental factors, none of which are new.

Somalia has been without a stable government since 1991. Twenty years of internal conflict have resulted in tens of thousands of Somalis fleeing their homes to refugee camps across the border in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Now the camps are struggling to accommodate the additional influx of people fleeing the famine. The lack of clean water and sanitation among a population already under-immunized and under-nourished is fuelling cholera and measles outbreaks.

The continuing political conflict makes delivering humanitarian aid that much more difficult.

Also consider that among those who have fled the famine are farmers who won’t be around to plant crops when the rains return in November. And so the crisis continues.

At Carolina, we believe that global health is local health — we are all interconnected and have a responsibility to those who are less fortunate, particularly in times of crisis.

The UNC community is compassionate, globally engaged and always ready to rise to the challenge. I’ve seen it happen. If you want to get involved, the World Food Programme has put together a list of 10 ways you can help, including a quiz to test your knowledge of the situation. For every person who takes it, a child gets a warm meal courtesy of an anonymous donor.

The most effective way to help those who are suffering is to make a monetary donation to an organization providing relief in the area. The USAID website has a list of organizations that are accepting contributions. Also, we can all become better informed about what is happening in the Horn of Africa and raise awareness in the classroom and among our friends and family. As global citizens, that is the very least we can do.

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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or