I often write editorials that are inspired by articles we publish, and this month's major features on screening war veterans for perpetration of intimate partner violence and on addressing the needs of older trauma victims are certainly thought provoking. But when I saw the latest data from the United Nations (UN) about the drought and famine spreading across East Africa, that crisis became all I could think about—especially as here in the United States, we're preparing for Thanksgiving's traditional feast.
Thousands of people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia have already died and millions more are at risk. In July, a World Health Organization report stated that the region was experiencing its worst drought in 60 years, with the crisis affecting over 10 million people. Then, in September, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that more than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian aid; in Somalia alone, the most affected nation, 750,000 people could die within months. People in this region already have some of the lowest average life expectancies in the world: for Somalians, life expectancy at birth is just 45 years.
I spoke with Gerry Martone, a nurse and the director of humanitarian affairs for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), shortly after he returned from visiting a refugee camp in Kenya. An aid worker for more than 20 years who's traveled to many of the world's most impoverished areas, Martone told me that the situation in East Africa was by far the worst he's ever seen. (For more on the IRC's work in the region, visit www.rescue.org/drought-east-africa.)
"It's absolutely the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now," he said. "People are walking hundreds of miles to get help," many making their way to refugee camps such as that established by the UN outside Dadaab, Kenya, just across the border from Somalia. Martone said that the camp, originally set up to shelter 90,000 refugees, now holds more than 440,000, making it "the third largest city in Kenya—and about a thousand more people arrive daily."
While drought is the main reason people are fleeing East Africa, Martone said there are other factors at work. "There's a saying," he said. "'Drought is caused by nature; famine is caused by man.'" Martone noted that other regions afflicted with drought have had more resources and governments able to provide assistance and protection. But here, one of the biggest challenges is getting aid and aid workers into the area: "It's like the Wild West—it's the most dangerous place in the world." In Somalia, the lack of a stable central government and years of conflict among warring clans have led to a complete breakdown of legal, social, and political systems. Many relief organizations are reluctant to send in aid workers because local security forces are insufficient and spread too thin to ensure their safety (IRC staff in the region are all local Somalians or Kenyans).
I asked Martone what nurses can do to help. He responded, "Find an aid agency you can identify with, and support it. Nurses are the ones making a difference in the camp hospitals. It's nursing care that's saving [the refugees]—rehydrating, feeding, and caring for the weakest. Help support these nurses." (For the story of one nurse working in Dadaab, visit http://bit.ly/nDe6BB.)
And while few situations are as dire as the crisis in East Africa, there are people here at home who need your support, too. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 46 million Americans (15%) were living in poverty, "the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published." The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that last year nearly 15% of U.S. households lacked "food security"—they didn't always have access to enough food to keep household members active and healthy.
Thanksgiving honors the harvest; it's a celebration of communal survival. As we prepare for the holiday this year, let's celebrate by helping others—whether in East Africa or closer to home—to survive and flourish.