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WHO seeks urgent action to avert Sudan crisis

Child death rate triple that of humanitarian emergency

A Sudanese woman picks up seeds dropped by a U.N. World Food Programme aircraft in the village of Mayiendit in January.
• Part 1:  Painful cost of relief
• Chad reports dozens killed in raid
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One of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today.
World Health Organization (WHO)
United Nations
Jan Egeland

(CNN) -- Millions of men, women and children may die in the Darfur region of Sudan unless there is an immediate outpouring of international aid, the World Health Organization warned Wednesday.

"A significant increase in disease and death is inevitable without a rapid increase in external help," the WHO said in a written statement. "The catastrophe can only be prevented through an urgent scaling up of the current international response."

The urgent appeal came one day before donor nations were to meet in Geneva to formulate their response to the Sudan crisis.

The crisis in Darfur began after fighting erupted early last year between the Sudanese government, allied militias and rebel groups.

Government-backed Arab militias are carrying out "scorched earth" attacks against black African communities of Darfur, according to the United Nations. The U.N. estimates some 30,000 have been killed in the campaign of ethnic cleansing.

U.N. Emergency Coordinator Jan Egeland last week called the situation in Darfur "the biggest humanitarian drama of our time."

"This is the most dramatic race against the clock that we have anywhere in the world at the moment," he said. "If we lose, hundreds of thousands of women and children, mostly, will perish."

Sudan has been embroiled in a 21-year civil war.

Its government and main rebel group last week signed historic agreements, paving the way for a final deal to end the more than two decades of civil war. Details of that pact will be negotiated later this month. But that agreement did not address the conflict in Darfur.

More than 1.2 million of the 6.7 million inhabitants of the three western states in the Darfur region have been displaced from their villages and homes, and 2 million people have been affected, the WHO said.

"In at least one instance, the child mortality rate rose to three times higher than the international threshold for a humanitarian emergency (two deaths per 10, 000 under-five children per day)," the United Nations agency said.

Ministers and officials from donor nations were to meet Thursday in Geneva to formulate their response to the crisis.

"Bold and decisive action is needed now," the statement said.

"WHO estimates that a humanitarian crisis can only be prevented through a rapid scaling up in the response -- especially during the next three months. WHO now seeks $7.6 million for the health response in Darfur as part of $30 million needed for health work throughout Sudan, to help the government coordinate the response of the health sector and tackle disease outbreaks, improve sanitation, respond to public health needs and improve access to medical care."

"Death and disease spiral upwards when there is inadequate food, unsafe water, improper sanitation and shelter, widespread violence, lack of public health inputs like vaccinations and insufficient access to medical care. These are the realities of the current crisis in Darfur," said WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook.

"The world must not stand by as conflict is compounded by rising rates of death that could be prevented through concerted action."

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