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"We will see more people dying from the disease than from hunger and malnutrition combined if we do not act now," WHO Representative Makik said.
In a joint report released on Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and Somali Health Ministry said that an estimated 43,000 excess deaths may have occurred in 2022 in Somalia due to severe drought, a figure higher than that of the first year of the 2017-2018 drought.
These organizations pointed out that half of the drought-related deaths occurred among children under the age of five. Health Minister Ali Haji Adam Abubakar expressed concern about the scale of the health impact of a deepening and protracted food crisis in Somalia.
"At the same time, we are optimistic that if we can sustain our ongoing and scaled-up health and nutrition actions and humanitarian response to save lives and protect the health of our vulnerable, we can push back the risk of famine forever, else those vulnerable and marginalized will pay the price of this crisis with their lives," he said.
The joint report said a scenario-based forecast model was developed from the same study to enable anticipatory action and avert drought-related deaths. The forecast, spanning January to June 2023, estimates that 135 people might also die each day due to the crisis, with total deaths projected to fall between 18,100 and 34,200 during this period.
UPDATE: Head of @Sodma_som, Mohamud Moalim, has received 11 tons of food aid from the United Arab Emirates, amid concern over famine in Somalia. The drought has already put half of the country's population in need of food assistance. pic.twitter.com/AONSCgCXTt
"These estimates suggest that, although famine has been averted for now, the crisis is far from over and is already more severe than the 2017-2018 drought crisis," the report said.
These figures are derived from a statistical model which estimated that the crude death rate increased across Somalia from 0.33 to 0.38 deaths per 10,000 person-days over the January-December 2022 period; the rate in children younger than 5 was nearly double these levels.
The crude death rate is forecast to reach 0.42 deaths per 10,000 person-days by June 2023 WHO Representative Mamunur Rahman Malik said they are racing against time to prevent deaths and save lives that are avoidable.
"We have seen deaths and diseases thrive when hunger and food crises prolong. We will see more people dying from the disease than from hunger and malnutrition combined if we do not act now," he said, warning that the cost of inaction will mean that vulnerable people will pay with their lives while the world "hopelessly, helplessly" witnesses the tragedy unfold.
The study, which was commissioned by the UNICEF Regional Office and WHO Somalia country office and carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, presents retrospective estimates of mortality across Somalia from January to December 2022.
The highest death rates were estimated to have occurred in south-central Somalia, especially the areas around Bay, Bakool, and Banadir regions, the current epicenter of the drought.
Wafaa Saeed, UNICEF country representative of Somalia, said these results present a grim picture of the devastation brought on children and their families by the drought.
"We are saddened by these deaths, and we know there could have been many more deaths had humanitarian assistance not been scaled up to reach affected communities," she said.
"We must continue to save lives by preventing and treating malnutrition, providing safe and clean water, improving access to life-saving health services, immunizing children against deadly diseases such as measles, and providing critical protection services," Saeed added.
Somalia is enduring five consecutive seasons of failed rains, the longest in recent memory, which has left 5 million people in acute food insecurity and nearly 2 million children at risk of malnutrition. The United Nations says it needs more than US$2.6 billion to meet the priority needs of 7.6 million people in 2023.