By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Tuesday it was struggling to keep up with an exodus of hungry Somali refugees and many emaciated children were dying of malnutrition along the way or after arriving in neighboring countries.
More than 10 million people are caught up in the Horn of Africa crisis sparked by the worst drought in decades compounded by intensified fighting in Somalia, it says.
Since the start of July alone, more than 11,000 people fleeing in Somalia have arrived in Ethiopia and more than 8,600 in Kenya, the U.N. refugee agency said. Kenya's Dadaab camps, the world's largest, are overflowing with 380,000 refugees.
"We're in a situation where we are struggling to keep pace with the sheer volume of arrivals at the moment," Adrian Edwards, spokesman of the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing upon return from Kenya.
Many Somalis are trying to escape heavy fighting between government forces and al Shabaab rebels and food prices that have quadrupled in recent months due to severe drought, he said. "The prognosis looks very poor indeed at the moment."
"You have many cases we're seeing in which people arrive in such an emaciated state and young children in particular that they don't survive even after reaching these camps," he said.
Somali refugees seeking shelter in Kenya are the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable in the world, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said on Monday in Nairobi.
TIME OF THE ESSENCE
"As this devastating drought deepens, time is of the essence," Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP), said in a statement appealing for funding for its $477 million programme in the Horn of Africa.
The lives of half a million children in the region are at risk, the U.N. Children's Fund said last week.
"The number of children severely acute malnourished, and that means at risk of death, in Kenya is 65,000 right now," UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said on Tuesday.
"The prospects for a rapid recovery before the end of the year are everything but promising. We need to act now to prevent this crisis from turning into a humanitarian catastrophe."
In Somalia, child health is already among the poorest in the world, according to the World Health Organization. About one in 11 babies die before their first birthday and one in seven before his or her fifth birthday, the WHO says.
Outbreaks of measles and cholera have already been reported in Djibouti and Ethiopia, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said, quoting WHO officials on the ground, but there were no figures.
Cholera, endemic in Somalia, is feared to be spreading due to poor sanitation and mass movement within the country, including people arriving in the capital Mogadishu, he said.
Hundreds of thousands of children are to be vaccinated along the Somali-Kenyan border and in the Dadaab camps to protect them from diseases including polio and measles, Jasarevic said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)