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Misery in world's largest refugee camp

By Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent
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Children suffering, dying in Africa
  • Dust and starvation are nearly everywhere at the world's largest refugee camp
  • Smell is acrid sweetness associated with malnourishment, anxious sweat and diesel fuel
  • Lack of water, loss of crops and death of livestock have caused massive famine

Anderson Cooper reports live from Somalia and talks with U2's Bono about the disturbing hunger situation there and how you can help. Tune into "AC360" at 8 and 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on CNN.

Dadaab, Kenya (CNN) -- Right now, this may be the most desperate place on Earth.

A drought, not seen in 60 years, compounded with near complete lawlessness and utter disregard for human life has made it so.

It is hard to imagine, but dust and starvation are nearly everywhere you look, and the world's largest refugee camp is thick with misery on this night. The smell is a combination of the acrid sweetness associated with malnourishment, anxious sweat and diesel fuel.

The fuel is used to keep away the swarming flies. It stinks more than it repels.

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The children here are small, too small for their age. I met 5-year-old Janaw and saw him weigh in at 20 pounds. His brother is 4 and weighs closer to 15. And there is a youngest brother, Muhammad, just 3 months and light as a feather.

There is something else about these boys as well. I have seen children all over the world suffering through wars and nature's retaliations, and yet I can always elicit a smile. Play a game, snap a picture, shake a hand and the smile will come. Not here.

These too small children, listlessly clutching small bundles composed of everything they own in the world, barely look up. And, on the few occasions I do catch their eye, I see my own children's eyes looking back at me.

It makes me want to scream, but instead I nearly cry.

These children make their way into my dreams at night. With their yellowed, leathery skin, white eyelids, croup like cough and persistent sores, they reflect the consequences of inaction to a catastrophe that was neither sudden, nor a surprise.

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This lack of water, and the subsequent loss of crops, followed by the death of livestock had been predicted for at least a year, and yet still there is a full on famine here, unlike the world has seen in a long time.

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Muhammad's father, Hussein, packed up his belongings and started walking with his wife and kids after his last cow died, he told me. "Once the animals die, the kids are next," he said.

For more than a month, they walked. They made up a landscape of brilliant colors along the Somalia-Kenya border with babies bundled on their backs. They did most of their walking at night to avoid the heat of the day, and to avoid bandits. The bandits still found them, and stripped them of what little they had left.

"They were lucky they weren't also beaten for not having more," a doctor told me.

This family of five joins the refugee camp designed to hold 90,000 people. The population is more than 400,000 now, with at least 2,000 additional refugees coming in every day, according to the United Nations. It's as if the population of Cleveland had suddenly been relocated to this awful place.

I could tell within moments that little baby Muhammad was in a particularly dire condition. His eyes had hemorrhages in them, and he was expressionless and quiet. I remember a professor in medical school telling me, "It is always worse when the kids don't cry -- that is when you know, they are really sick."

The only time Muhammad made any noise was a high-pitched whoop when he took a breath in.

"Coqueluche," a nurse said in French. English translation: pertussis, or whooping cough.

"This is what happens when kids are not vaccinated," the nurse continued. "We are also seeing measles, tetanus and diphtheria."

On this night, Muhammad is lying in a bed with oxygen, getting antibiotics and finally getting some calories and fluids. It is still not clear that any of those treatments will have come soon enough.

Even more painful to realize is that every single one of his ailments could have been prevented.

Unfortunately, though, that hardly ever happens in the most desperate places on Earth.

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