At its worst, when the malnutrition causes the children’s entire bodies to swell and their faces swell into round manes, desperate parents cut their flesh to try to drain the accumulated fluid.
A seriously ill child risks infection, possibly HIV, in addition to the dreaded ‘kwashiorkor’ which, if left untreated, will be fatal or cause lifelong disability.
Kwashiorkor, a complex form of malnutrition, is still relatively rare in northern Kenya, but health professionals are on high alert as the drought that has cost the region dragged on for four rainy seasons.
Patrick Lokitela, who works at the Sasame Dispensary in Turkana County, Kenya, shudders when he speaks of the children it affects.
The pharmacy can help underweight and moderately to severely malnourished children whose mothers walk for hours to carry them to the weekly clinic
for supplementary feeding. But kwashiorkor urgently needs specialized treatment in a regional center.
“All the legs are swollen, the upper limbs, the hands and the face becomes a kind of moon face,” explains Mr. Lokitela. “It’s painless and if you press the meat with your thumbs, it makes a pit.”
Aid workers explain the distinguishing features on visits to the rural communities to try to dissuade them from administering traditional remedies.
That means cutting the children, often with razors that are certainly not sterilized but often not even washed because water is so scarce.
Mr. Lokitela is a health and nutrition officer at Concern relief organization. It warns that 350,000 severely malnourished children face death as the drought and hunger crisis in East Africa escalates.
Small centers like the one in Sasame can’t hope to catch them all, and the repeat count increases as nutrients from the delivered food are lost to diarrhea caused by drinking from muddy makeshift waterholes.
The situation in much of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan is now worse than before the last disaster in 2011 that killed more than a quarter of a million people.
Then 13 million people needed humanitarian aid to survive the ensuing famine. Concern says 23 million people need humanitarian aid in the region, but international donors are not responding.
Four failed rainy seasons in a row have decimated livestock, barren pastures, destroyed crops and caused widespread starvation and malnutrition.
Diseases are spreading and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to migrate in search of grazing land, water and humanitarian aid.
Concern Regional Director Amina Abdulla said an estimated five million children in the five countries are malnourished, 1.6 million of whom are severely malnourished.
“Without an urgent response and scaling up of humanitarian aid, we risk 350,000 of these children dying,” she said.
Aid has so far kept famine at bay, but Abdulla said 500,000 people are now categorized as one step away from famine.
The situation is all the more precarious because the limited aid that has been delivered has only reached half as far as normal due to a doubling of the price of imported maize since the war against Ukraine.
“We are seeing a significant increase in the number of children under five who need emergency treatment, but there are simply not enough resources to meet the need, especially in remote areas,” said Arshad Muhammad, Concern’s Country Director for Kenya.
Barbara White, his counterpart in Ethiopia, said the drought is taking a big toll there too.
“We are focusing on building people’s capacity to deal with emergencies, but this situation is now over and with the expected rainfall in the coming season below average, it is a race against time to save people “, she said.