UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Priyanka Chopra Jonas travelled to northern Kenya this month to meet children suffering from severe acute malnutrition as a result of prolonged drought across the Horn of Africa.

During the two-day visit, Chopra Jonas travelled to Turkana County – among 15 drought-affected counties in Kenya due to climate change and the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 – where almost 1 in 3 children are suffering from acute malnutrition. Nearly 900,000 children under the age of 5 in affected counties are in need of treatment for life-threatening severe acute malnutrition, also known as severe wasting.

“In the Horn of Africa children are starving to death and millions more are on the brink of starvation right now,” said Chopra Jonas. “Most of the families I met are living on less than $1 a day, and some had not eaten for three days. This is what climate change looks like here. UNICEF’s life-saving efforts on the ground are helping to curb this hunger crisis, which includes distribution of nutrient packed therapeutic foods that can save a child’s life.”

In Kenya, the last four failed rainy seasons have left 1.4 million children with reduced access to nutritious food, safe drinking water, health services, education, and protection from violence and neglect. A predicted fifth poor rainy season is expected to worsen the situation, leading to more children and families needing humanitarian assistance.

In response to the crisis in the Horn of Africa, UNICEF is scaling up nutrition services and distributing therapeutic milk and ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to health centres, as well as supporting governments to identify and treat children with malnutrition in the hardest to reach areas.

UNICEF has been working tirelessly with governments and other partners to minimise child deaths in the most difficult of circumstances,” said UNICEF Kenya Acting Representative Jean Lokenga. “This dire situation could get worse, especially if the next rainy season fails or life-saving commodities such as RUTFs become unavailable due to funding shortfalls. There is a desperate need in Kenya and the region for additional and sustained response to this crisis. We are grateful to UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Priyanka Chopra Jonas in helping us raise much needed awareness of the drought response appeal, and ensure every child has access to life-saving assistance.”

At a pediatric stabilization centre at the Lodwar Referral Hospital in Lodwar Town, where children in the worst conditions are admitted for specialized treatment, Chopra Jonas met with two-year-old Keeza, who was admitted with severe malnutrition. Unable to fight off disease as a result of a weakened immune system, Keeza subsequently contracted malaria, pneumonia and oedema. Thanks to community health volunteers who traced him to his home in Nakwamekwi Village in Lodwar Town, Keeza was brought in and admitted at the hospital.

“The reality in Kenya is that so many children like Keeza are not getting the treatment they need, and are uniquely vulnerable. Children whose immune systems are already weakened by malnutrition can’t fight off disease, meaning they’re just as likely to die of illness as of hunger. It’s devastating and it’s preventable. Unless we act now, millions more children will be pushed to the brink of death,” said Chopra Jonas.

During the visit, Chopra Jonas also met with members of the Sopel Village community who have faced the brunt of the drought in central Turkana, with some choosing to migrate in search of water and pasture for their animals. With the construction of a solar-powered borehole at Sopel, there is now reliable and safe access to water for the entire village, including at the local health dispensary and primary school.

Across the Horn of Africa, UNICEF is providing emergency WASH kits to families affected by drought, enabling them to treat water at home, and rehabilitating and upgrading non-functional boreholes in strategic locations, including villages, schools, and health facilities. Vulnerable families also receive cash transfers to support with health costs and to protect children from child marriage and dropping out of school.

“I met one mother, Hanna Moru, and was inspired by her resilience during this drought. She told me how she has been able to remain at her village only because of the water source that has served her family,” Chopra Jonas said. “Hanna’s 13-year-old daughter Celine is now able to go to school, and her youngest child is able to receive immunizations and nutritional treatment at the local dispensary.”

UNICEF is calling on governments, private sector, and individuals for urgent financial support for the Horn of Africa drought response. As the situation continues to deteriorate, more needs to be done to expand and ensure continuity of the response while also investing in longer-term resilience to help families facing repeated climate-induced emergencies.

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