The famine in Africa that no-one hears about

As a (very new) member of the medical profession, I feel it is my duty to bring to your attention the terrible food crisis that is happening in four different countries across Africa at the moment.

This is something that isn’t making the headlines, but really ought to be.

20 million people, including 10 million children, are at risk of starvation and the situation is at a critical point. Aid officials say there is only a short timeframe (lasting until around July) to raise the funds needed to avert an absolute catastrophe.

This is not something that will affect you directly. Nor is it something that directly concerns me. At least, it has nothing to do with my job as a doctor in the UK’s NHS. However, as a member of the medical profession, I feel it is my duty to fight for the wellbeing of people, no matter where they are in the world.

The famine:

The food crisis is simultaneously affecting four different countries across the continent: South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. In fact, it’s the first time we’re looking at famine in four separate parts of the world at the same time.

A famine was officially declared by the UN in February of this year, making this the first official famine in six years. The last was in 2011 in the Horn of Africa and led to the death of 260,000 people.

The UN are calling this the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. In March, they announced that $5.6 billion would be needed to avert a catastrophe by July, but only 1/4 of this has been so-far been raised.

The total number of people estimated to be at risk of starvation is 20 million. Half of those are children and 1.4 million children are already severely malnourished.

In addition to the food shortages, 20 million people across these countries lack clean water and sanitation and 21 million are without access to healthcare facilities. All this at a time when three out of these four countries are also suffering from cholera outbreaks.

The cause:

Well, the causes are complex, with drought and cholera outbreaks certainly contributing. However, in each of the four countries affected, conflict is the main factor driving the food crisis.

The countries:


Fighting has raged between the government and Houthi rebels for the past 2 years. About 19 million people (70% of the population) are now in need of some form of aid but the World Food Programme says it can only afford to feed 3 million.


Civil war has gripped Somalia for the last 26 years but the situation has been worsened by a recent drought and disease outbreaks. According to UNICEF, 1.4 million children in Somalia are projected to be acutely malnourished this year, an increase of 50% over last year.


Insurgency by the jihadist group Boko Haram in the northeast has killed more than 20,000 people. Some 4.7 million people are facing severe food shortages but the UN said it could run out of money by June or July.

South Sudan

Created in 2011, South Sudan is the newest country in the world. It was hoped that the country’s independence from Sudan would bring peace and stability, but civil war has continued to rage. The war is driving a refugee crisis in which 1.6 million have fled the country, over half of whom have ended up in neighbouring Uganda. A further 1.9 million people are internally displaced (refugees within their own country).

Why has this gained so little attention?

I wonder whether the lack of media attention is because we’ve developed a bit of “humanitarian crisis fatigue”. Wars, famines, earthquakes and so on seem to be happening all the time and perhaps we’ve grown a little bit tired of hearing about the suffering in people in other parts of the world.

Plus, famines have to be one of the most ‘boring’ types of humanitarian crisis. They’re not a dramatic event like an earthquake, instead they grumble on gradually, without an obvious point to launch a news story around. And famine is probably one of the types of humanitarian crises that we’re most tired about hearing. Novel and unheard of disasters are much more likely to get talked about. For example, most people had never heard of a tsunami before the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which undoubtedly helped it get more media attention. Part of the hype around the recent Zika virus outbreak was likely due to the fetal malformations (microcephaly) being new and unheard of; I’m sure this novelty helped capture the attention of the public.

Famines are just not ‘sexy’. But that doesn’t excuse us from caring about them any less.

So what can I do about it?

That’s a really good question, and I’m not actually sure I know the answer to that one.

Giving to charity is a good idea. As to which charity, I’m not sure.

There’s been quite a bit of controversy over donations ending up in the hands of the armed actors perpetuating the conflicts. Others have criticised the practice of simply handing out food, claiming that it doesn’t help these countries in the long run and creates a situation where people become reliant on this food aid. So it’s important to choose carefully the charity you support.

If any of you reading have any suggestions on what ordinary people can do to help out, please get in touch.

My message to other doctors and medical professionals: if you work in the NHS, you might consider all this to be a little outside your remit. You may never end up working directly on these sorts of ‘global health’ issues but surely it is a duty of ours to at least take an interest in the health of people around the world and try and promote global health in the public agenda?

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