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Double whammy: Malnutrition and cholera hit refugee camp in Kenya

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Nairobi. Dec. 16, 2009 - Malnutrition rates are soaring and cholera is spreading at a camp in northwestern Kenya that has recently experienced significant influxes of refugees and steep funding cuts, says the aid group the International Rescue Committee.

An IRC survey conducted last month at Kakuma camp found that 17% of children under the age of five, or around 1,800 of 10,460 children, are malnourished. That's a 6% jump from last year.

"Malnutrition among young children at Kakuma is now above the World Health Organization's 'critical' threshold of 15% and newly arrived refugee children have been hit the hardest," says Dr. Vincent Kahi, the IRC's health coordinator in Kenya.

Newly-arrived refugees are the most vulnerable, as many are already in poor health and all rely 100% on aid agencies for food rations. Many families end up bartering some of their basic ration for other essentials - such as firewood - reducing the amount of food that they ultimately provide to their young children.

Dr. Kahi says the shortage of nutritious food has also led to unacceptably high levels of anemia in young children.

"The IRC was alarmed to find that more than 70% of children surveyed are anemic, which can cause general weakness, shortness of breath and in severe cases, cardiac problems," says Dr. Kahi. "It's urgent that health care providers in the camp strengthen specific interventions, such as increasing the use of micronutrient powder."

Fluctuations in population size and funding at Kakuma are compounding health problems. Thousands of former predominantly Sudanese inhabitants returned home following Sudan's peace accord of 2005 and resources were reduced as a result. However, a recent influx of refugees from war-torn Somali has boosted the camp's residents to more than 60,000, creating an urgent need for more funding and assistance.

Currently, new Somali arrivals receive an average of just 12 liters of water per person per day and there are not enough latrines in areas of the camp where they have settled. This has contributed to a serious outbreak of cholera that has already claimed three lives and left another 210 gravely ill.

"The cholera spread into the camp from nearby communities outside who are facing drought and water shortages," says Dr Kahi. "It's obviously much more difficult to maintain sanitary conditions if you don't have enough water."

The IRC has launched emergency water, sanitation and medical programs in response to the cholera outbreak and is scaling up its feeding programs to tackle the malnutrition.

"What's also urgently needed is a reverse in the recent funding cuts to meet the needs of the surging population at Kakuma and its growing health problems," says Kellie Leeson, IRC country director in Kenya. "Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have been forced from their villages by conflict or natural disaster and are arriving in Kenya with nothing. They desperately need support and basic essentials, including water, food and health care."

The IRC has been delivering life-saving medical care in Kakuma since 1992 - when the camp was established as a haven for the Lost Boys of Sudan. Today, the IRC runs a hospital, health clinics and feeding centers for both the refugees and the surrounding Kenyan population. The IRC also provides community health care services and HIV/AIDS prevention and response programming across Greater Turkana, as well as a range of health programs for Somali refugees at Hagadera Camp in Dadaab.

For more information, photos and interviews, please contact:

Dr Vincent Kahi, IRC Health Coordinator, Kakuma: +254 (0) 733 200 071
Vincent.Kahi@theIRC.org

Kellie Leeson, IRC Country Director, Nairobi: +254 (0) 20 272 0063/4
Kellie.Leeson@theIRC.org

Joanne Offer, Regional Media Manager, UK: +44 (0) 778 923 7070
Joanne.Offer@theIRC.org

Melissa Winkler, IRC Communications Director, New York: + 1 212 551 0972
Melissa.Winkler@theIRC.org

About the International Rescue Committee: A global leader in humanitarian assistance, the International Rescue Committee works in more than 40 countries offering help and hope to refugees and others uprooted by conflict and oppression. During crises, IRC teams provide health care, shelter, clean water, sanitation, learning programs for children and special aid for women. As emergencies subside, the IRC stays to revive livelihoods and help shattered communities recover and rebuild. The IRC also helps resettle refugees admitted into the United States. A tireless advocate for the most vulnerable, the IRC is committed to restoring hope, dignity and opportunity. For more information, visit www.theIRC.org.