Relief officials say famine victims staggering into refugee camps in search of food are faced with a new threat when they arrive--diseases such as cholera, typhus, measles and others that breed in the overcrowded tents.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said cholera could spread widely because the Ethiopian government "is not taking reports of the disease seriously."
At least 50 people are dying every day of cholera in a small refugee camp in the northern region of Wollo, aid officials said.
The outbreak is an added affliction for the estimated 7,750,000 people suffering from drought-related food shortages in the impoverished African country.
Ethiopian Deputy Relief Commissioner Berhane Deressa avoided answering directly when he was asked this week about cholera and other diseases in the camps. He spoke of "dire shortages" of drugs and supplementary foods, adding: "The death rate is not getting worse. But it will get worse if we don't get this help as soon as possible."
Children are the most at risk from the diseases rampant in the camps, according to the deputy director of one of the biggest aid agencies, Susan Barber of the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services.
Typhus and relapsing fever are being spread by lice, and measles, dysentery and bronchial pneumonia are spreading rapidly in the cramped camps, she said.
A missionary doctor visiting Addis Ababa, the capital, from a northern camp said many children are also suffering from meningitis, hepatitis and eye diseases such as conjunctivitis.
"I examined a little girl last week who will be blind in three weeks' time," the doctor said. "There's nothing we can do. There are many like her."
Meanwhile, officials in Nairobi, Kenya, said that the United Nations is airlifting tons of emergency food and medical supplies to Sudan for more than 400,000 refugees who have fled Ethiopia in the last three months.
Two chartered Boeing 707 aircraft carrying 32 tons per trip will ferry the medical supplies, food and other materials from Amsterdam to the eastern Sudan town of Kassala, near the border with Ethiopia.
The 10-day airlift began Jan. 20 and is expected to cost $775,000, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said from the regional headquarters in Nairobi.
The airlift is directed primarily at the 200,000 refugees who have arrived in southeastern Sudan from famine-stricken Ethiopia in the past six weeks.