REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Somalia's hunger crisis has eased somewhat, with the U.N. announcing that three of six famine regions were no longer technically in famine after aid trickled into the country.
But those regions -- Bay, Bakool and Lower Shabelle -- remain in a critical situation and 250,000 people are still predicted to die in southern Somalia because of the crisis.
Three other areas -- Middle Shabelle, Afgoye and including sprawling refugee camps in the capital, Mogadishu -- will remain in famine until at least the end of the year. Somalia's hunger emergency is the worst in the world and the worst in Somalia since its last famine in 1991.
"Death rates, especially for young children, remain extremely high, in part due to continued outbreaks of measles, cholera and malaria. Tens of thousands of people have died since April and deaths are likely to continue over the coming months," the U.N. Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit and U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning System announced in a joint statement.
According to aid agencies, all of southern Somalia is in an acute situation and death rates are still high. UNICEF said tens of thousands of children's lives were still at risk. "While the global acute malnutrition and crude death rates have declined in many areas, malnutrition rates continue to remain above the famine threshold levels in a large part of southern Somalia.
Child death rates also remain above crisis levels in several areas," UNICEF representative to Somalia, Sikander Khan, said in a statement.
Famine is a technical definition which relates to child mortality and malnutrition rates during a hunger crisis. In famine, more than 30% of children have acute malnutrition, with the mortality rate at two adults or four children per 10,000 people.
The U.N. declared the famine in two regions of Somalia in July and shortly afterward declared more areas to be hit by famine. UNICEF said 4 million people needed aid, and mortality rates were likely to climb in coming months as waterborne diseases like cholera spread due to the current seasonal rains.
The U.N. launched an appeal for $1 billion, and received $800 million. UNICEF still needs $362 million to fund relief programs this year and next. Oxfam said Kenya's October military action to crush the rebel militia Shabab had endangered the flow of relief and called on world leaders who have announced their support for the invasion to instead focus on the humanitarian crisis.
"New fighting is already disrupting the supply of aid to tens of thousands of people at a critical time in the crisis," said Senait Gebregziabher, Oxfam Country Director for Somalia.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Relatives of Ibrahim Shegow of southern Somalia watch as he lowers the body of his 7-month-old son into a grave at a Mogadishu refugee camp in August. The number of famine zones in Somalia was cut in half Friday, U.N. agencies reported. But hundreds of thousands of Somalis still face imminent starvation. Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh / Associated Press