Pakistan suffering famine-like child malnutrition

One of the areas in Pakistan hit hardest by last year's massive floods is suffering child malnutrition rates similar to those seen in African famines, according to the United Nations.

The plight of children in southern Sindh province highlights the challenges Pakistan faces as it tries to recover from the floods, which first struck six months ago and eventually affected at least 18 million people and damaged or destroyed 1.7 million homes.

A survey conducted after the floods by the United Nations Children's Fund and the Sindh provincial government found that almost a quarter of the children in the province suffered from acute malnutrition.

"I haven't seen levels of malnutrition this bad since the worst famines in Ethiopia, Darfur and Chad," said UNICEF's deputy representative in Pakistan, Karen Allen, in a statement posted on the group's website Wednesday. "It's shocking, shockingly bad."

Malnutrition has long been a problem in Pakistan. A 2002 survey found a national malnutrition rate of 13.2 percent, and the World Health Organization has said that up to 35 percent of children in Pakistan had stunted growth before the floods — a sign of chronic malnutrition.

But the floods, which inundated about one-fifth of the country — an area the size of the United Kingdom — have exacerbated the problem, said UNICEF. More than 7 million people were affected in Sindh alone and nearly 900,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.

"We're seeing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions right now," said UNICEF's chief of communications in Pakistan, Kristen Elsby. "Millions of children are greatly at risk of malnutrition. Babies are dying and mothers are at risk of dying during childbirth."

Health care is only one of the areas where more help is needed for Pakistan to recover from the floods.

More than 500,000 people across Pakistan whose houses were destroyed will not receive support to rebuild unless the U.N. receives additional funding from the international community, said Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

"In terms of human suffering ... it is the difference between struggling to survive without adequate shelter and allowing people to start rebuilding their homes and lives," said Lom during a press conference in Islamabad on Thursday.

The U.N. has received about 56 percent of the nearly $2 billion that it requested from the international community to respond to the floods.

The World Food Program, which has been providing support to more than 5 million Pakistanis, has enough funding to continue through February but would then experience shortages unless it received more support, said WFP official Carl Paulsson.

"The emergency in Pakistan is not over and there is still a lot that needs to be done," said U.N. special envoy, Rauf Engin Soysal, during Thursday's press conference.