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Half-Million Somali Children Starving - UN

FILE: Women and children queue to receive food at a World Food Program distribution center in Mogadishu. Drought, conflict and a lack of food aid have left millions of people at risk of starvation in southern Somalia. Taken 4.5.2012

The number of young children in Somalia facing severe acute malnutrition (SAM) has increased to over half a million - a level higher than a 2011 famine in which tens of thousands of children died, U.N. agencies said on Tuesday.

"We've got more than half a million children facing preventable death. It's a pending nightmare," James Elder, spokesperson for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said at a Geneva news briefing, saying this level had not been seen in any country this century.

The U.N. has warned that parts of Somalia will be hit by famine in coming months as the Horn of Africa region faces a fifth consecutive failed rainy season. Somalia's 2011 famine claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, around half of whom were children.

There are over 513,000 children under five years old expected to suffer from SAM, Elder said, meaning they are many times more likely to die from diseases like measles, malaria and cholera which are spreading in the country. That represents a 33% increase in children at risk since June.

UNICEF said last week that over 700 children had died in nutrition centers across the country.

Elder said many of these centers were at maximum capacity and infants were receiving treatment on the floor.

"You've got critically ill children who, without treatment, may die in a matter of hours," he said.