More than half a million children in Yemen face life-threatening malnutrition as a risk of famine grows, a senior official of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Friday.
The figure, a three-fold jump since fighting erupted in March, reflects depleted food stocks compounded by a failing health system unable to care for hungry children or vaccinate them against disease, said Afshan Khan, director of UNICEF emergency programs worldwide.
“We are facing the potential of a huge humanitarian catastrophe. The levels of malnutrition that are being reported for children are extremely critical,” Khan said.
In addition to 537,000 children aged under five at risk of severe acute malnutrition, marked by visible wasting of their bodies, 1.3 million are moderately malnourished, according to the latest U.N. figures.
Fewer than one in five therapeutic feeding centers across Yemen are functional, Khan said. UNICEF operates 43 mobile teams that screen children for malnutrition but areas such as the al Qaeda-held eastern province of Hadramawt are inaccessible.
At least 5,400 people have been killed in the conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country where an estimated 10 percent of the 23 million population are now internally displaced. The death toll includes at least 502 children, UNICEF says.