GENEVA (Reuters) - About 1.4 million children in drought-hit Somalia are projected to suffer acute malnutrition this year, 50 percent more than estimated in January, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.
They include more than 275,000 children potentially facing a life-threatening severe acute form of malnutrition, who are nine times more likely to die of diseases including cholera or measles, UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said.
"The combination of malnutrition and disease plus displacement is deadly for children," Mercado told a Geneva news briefing after a trip to the central city of Baidoa.
"A severely malnourished and dehydrated child can die in a matter of hours if they do not get treatment for diarrhoea or cholera. Measles, which can be transmitted via air, can spread like fire in congested displacement camps," she said.
About 28,400 cases of cholera or acute watery diarrhoea, including 548 deaths, have already been recorded across Somalia, nearly double the rates last year, she added.
An estimated 2.9 million people in Somalia are facing famine, along with 17 million in northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen, the United Nations says. Famine has already been declared in pockets of South Sudan.
UNICEF has treated 56,000 Somali children for the most severe form of malnutrition since the beginning of year, an increase of 88 percent over last year, Mercado said. The known death rate among them was one percent, she added.
The agency, which supports nutrition and cholera centres, had no figure for the overall number of children who have died so far of hunger and disease in Somalia. But Mercado noted that in the 2011 famine an estimated 258,000 people died over an 18-month period, including 133,000 young children.
"Every mother I spoke to said their children were sick, either with diarrhoea, or vomiting or feverish. Most had never been vaccinated before because of the insecurity across the country," Mercado said. "The pace and the scale of displacement have risen exponentially."
Some 615,000 Somalis have fled their homes due to drought and failed crops since last November, joining 1 million previously internally displaced, U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke said.
The U.N. has received nearly 60 percent towards its humanitarian funding appeal of $720 million for Somalia this year, he said, adding: "We are still in a race against time."
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Catherine Evans