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Somalia famine baby back from brink of death

In this photo released by the International Rescue Committee, Minhaj Gedi Farah is held in the arms of his mother Asiah Dagane in the International Rescue Committee (IRC) hospital in Dadaab, Kenya Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011.

Edward Macharia/Edward Macharia/AP

As Minhaj Gedi Farah lay silently on a hospital bed three months ago, even his mother had given up hope that the skeletal Somali baby would live. Weeks of intensive feeding, though, have transformed him into a chubby-cheeked boy who crawls.

His is one of several stories highlighted Wednesday in an annual New York fundraising event held by the aid group International Rescue Committee, which helped nurse Minhaj back to health.

Famine has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Somali children this year, but the UN said despite restrictions by Islamist insurgents, heavy rains and fighting, aid agencies are expanding their reach. Food aid is now getting to 2.2 million of the four million Somalis who need it, the UN said.

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"His mother never thought he would recover. Every member of his family is happy," said Sirat Amin, a nurse-nutritionist with the International Rescue Committee, who has been monitoring Minhaj's progress. "He can sit without being supported, he can have [nutritional supplement]Plumpynut on his own. He's crawling."

In July, the month that the UN declared parts of Somalia famine zones, Minhaj was one of dozens of limp babies lying under mosquito net shrouds in the sweltering wards of the IRC hospital in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp. Seven-month-old Minhaj weighed only 3.2 kilograms, less than some newborns.

Pictures of his gaunt cheeks and bulging eyes made him the face of the famine. But after weeks of intensive feeding with Plumpynut – a kind of sweetened peanut butter packed with nutrients – he is nearly 8 kilograms, almost normal for a boy his age.

Since the beginning of the year, hundreds of thousands of Somali families have poured over the border, fleeing war and hunger. Domes made from dirty tarpaulins and scraps of cloth mushroomed on the scrublands of northern Kenya and the UN's famine announcement brought planeloads of television crews to capture images of their suffering.

Now the torrent of refugees fleeing into Kenya has slowed to a trickle and the camera crews have gone home. But that doesn't mean the emergency is over.

Nearly two million Somalis still don't have access to food aid. Rain has turned tracks through the bush to slush and there's been fighting along the border after hundreds of Kenyan soldiers crossed into Somalia. Last month's incursion followed a string of kidnappings on Kenyan soil by Somali gunmen.

Families wanting to flee may fear being caught up in the fighting or be stuck in the mud. Only the strongest are getting through. When they arrive, they are not only starving but sick and exhausted, Mr. Amin said. So although fewer are coming, when they arrive in the refugee camps in Kenya many are in a more severe state of starvation.

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The ward where Mr. Amin works has been expanded by two tents, but even so, 78 children are sharing 56 beds. That's about twice as many as when Minhaj was admitted. Some children are in even worse condition than he was.

Many of the new arrivals come in with diarrhea, cases of cholera, or secondary infections. Mr. Amin and other aid agencies say that deaths from illness are likely to rocket as weakened immune systems contend with the cold rains and diseases spread by puddles of dirty water.

The UN Children's Fund said about 168,0000 acutely malnourished children under the age of 5 could die within weeks. They are concerned about infectious diseases like measles, cholera and malaria, particularly in the dirty and overcrowded camps in the capital of Mogadishu.

"The famine is not over ... Children are dying on a daily basis," said Hannan Sulieman, Unicef's deputy representative for the Somalia mission. "Malnutrition has been way above emergency levels for over 10 years."

She said that her organization was planning to maintain current levels of aid until August or September next year, when Somalia would have had a long and a short rain harvest.

The famine is the worst emergency to hit Somalia for a generation. The UN has appealed for $1-billion and has got $779-million so far.

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But aid still doesn't reach many of the starving. Islamist militias battling the weak UN-backed government have forbidden many aid agencies to operate in their territory, exacerbating the effects of a severe drought.

So even after their parents have struggled through the mud, have made it past the militias and have staggered into the hospital, it is still too late for many, Mr. Amin said.

"I'm coping with it but sometimes it's heartbreaking.People are suffering. Sometimes they die in front of you," Mr. Amin said. "Sometimes you want to help but the numbers are just so high. There are just so many."

But seeing children like Minhaj recover gives him the strength to go on.

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