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UNICEF aims to raise awareness of children at risk in Africa's Sahel region

By the CNN Wire Staff
April 4, 2012 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
  • UNICEF estimates that about 1 million children could die of malnutrition
  • The children are in the Sahel region of Africa, which is prone to droughts
  • The UN agency has started a social media campaign to raise awareness
  • It so far only has about a quarter of the funds it has requested to tackle the crisis

(CNN) -- The United Nations Children's Fund set in motion a worldwide social media campaign Tuesday to raise awareness about children in the Sahel region in northern Africa who are in urgent need of food aid.

Called #SahelNOW, the campaign asks users on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to post messages through the day to spread word of the problem and raise funds for the estimated 1 million children in danger.

According to UNICEF, a "severe and ongoing drought in these desert regions means that 1 million children could die of malnutrition; we can save them if we act now."

The Sahel, a belt of arid land that stretches across Africa below the Sahara Desert, is a zone prone to cycles of drought. At the moment, eight countries -- from Senegal on the Atlantic Coast to Chad in the middle of the continent -- are experiencing the worst conditions.

Alarm over deadly food crisis in Africa
Sahel gets help from UNICEF campaign
Social media campaign to save Sahel

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the main causes of the humanitarian crisis in the region are "drought, chronic poverty, high food prices, displacement and conflict."

The United Nations estimates that more than 10 million people in total are in danger of starving to death.

Aid workers on the ground say the situation is rapidly deteriorating.

"It's related to the lack of rains in 2011 and the drought," said David Gressly, UNICEF's regional director.

"People are trying to cope with that by selling their personal belongings -- cattle, livestock," he said. "They're pulling children out of school to adapt to this."

UNICEF has asked governments for about $120 million to help tackle the crisis. At this point, it has about $30 million on hand.

"We have the technology and the knowledge to treat these children who suffer from severe acute malnutrition very effectively," said Werner Schultink, chief of nutrition at UNICEF.

"If we identify them, if we get to them quickly enough, we can really cure them and prevent them from dying," he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization said last month that it had only $10.3 million of the $75.4 million it needed to support more than 4.7 million individual beneficiaries in the region.

The United States says it has so far earmarked almost $200 million this year to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel. The assistance aims to help address short-term and long-term needs.

UNICEF's social media campaign comes after a celebrity-backed video that went viral helped make the alleged crimes of an African militia leader more widely known.

The nonprofit group Invisible Children produced the "Kony 2012" half-hour documentary, which was viewed tens of millions times on YouTube.

The video brought international attention to the activities of Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa.

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