GENEVA (Reuters) - Millions of children and women of child-bearing age in North Korea face malnutrition which can leave them at higher risk of death or disease, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.
The agency urged donors to help prevent a "nutrition crisis" in North Korea due to its funding shortfall. UNICEF has received only $4.6 million out of $20.4 million needed for its emergency programmes in the isolated country this year.
"If the funding does not arrive and we are unable to keep our nutrition programmes to treat those children who are severely malnourished, these children will suffer irreversible consequences on their growth and development capacity," Bijaya Rajbhandari, UNICEF's representative in North Korea, said in a statement.
UNICEF spokesman Chris Tidey had no immediate information on which governments had contributed to its funding appeal so far.
One in five North Korean children under the age of 5 already suffer from moderate malnutrition which can cause stunting and also hamper their cognitive development, Tidey told Reuters, citing a December 2010 survey.
This translated into an estimated 88,400 children who are moderately malnourished and deemed at risk of becoming severely malnourished, he said.
Severely malnourished children are particularly vulnerable to diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections which can be fatal, especially to those under five years old.
One in three North Korean children under five are moderately stunted and it is estimated that 11,400 children die each year before their fifth birthday, Tidey said.
Some 28 percent of North Korean women between 15 and 49 are under-nourished, according to UNICEF data.
"This greatly increases their risk of delivering infants with low birth weight who are at higher risk of mortality and diseases, increasing widespread chronic malnutrition with catastrophic long-term effects on children's development," UNICEF said.
Maternal mortality rates are also high, with 85 women dying in childbirth for every 100,000 live births, Tidey said.
UNICEF provides school feeding programmes, supplemental feeding for outpatients, and counseling for pregnant and nursing women to encourage breastfeeding.
Valerie Amos, the top U.N. humanitarian official who visited North Korea last week, urged regional powers to put politics aside amid a worsening food crisis there, saying the smattering of aid which has reached the country was making a difference.
North Korea's chronic food shortages have been compounded since the end of 2008 by an about-face in policy by the South Korean and U.S. governments, which suspended food assistance over the North's nuclear programme and food-monitoring problems.
At the same time, China is believed to have also sharply cut food aid to its ally, a nonpartisan report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service said in June.
"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea has been in a vicious cycle where the general population's chronic malnutrition has been unchanged for a long period of time. Should no sustainable action be taken, children in the DPRK will never realise their full potential," said Rajbhandari.
North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated 1 million people.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Karolina Tagaris