updated 8/10/2004 1:14:41 PM ET 2004-08-10T17:14:41

One in every three people in drought-stricken areas of Kenya now suffers from acute malnutrition, and worsening food shortages threaten several million in the East African nation, U.N. officials said Tuesday.

“The lives and livelihoods of over 2.3 million Kenyans are at risk,” said Timo Pakkala, deputy country director of the U.N. World Food Program. “Malnutrition rates are reaching alarming levels, endangering children’s physical and intellectual development.”

Acute malnutrition afflicts 35 percent of the population in the hardest hit areas, and chronic malnutrition is as high as 45 percent, said Heimo Laakkonen of the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.

As many as 1.2 million children could drop out of school and 520,000 children need vaccinations and vitamins to cope with disease outbreaks related to food shortages, the U.N. officials said.

“Education of thousands of children in the marginal areas of Kenya is in jeopardy as children are dropping out of schools to help secure food for their families,” Pakkala said.

The U.N. representatives spoke at the launch of a United Nations appeal for $97 million to help alleviate food shortages in the nation of 30 million people. The appeal came in response to a July 14 call by President Mwai Kibaki for emergency aid. The country will need an estimated 171,961 tons of food aid in the next six months because of widespread crop failures, Kibaki said.

Two of Kenya’s eight provinces have suffered an 80 percent crop failure and two other provinces have lost 40-50 percent of crops, said Wilfred Machage, the assistant minister for special programs.

Kenyan farmers rely on two rainy seasons — the “short rains” between October and December and the “long rains” from March to June. The current food shortages result from three successive long rain failures, Machage said.

Farmers are resorting to drastic measures such as consuming seeds, selling off productive assets and pulling children out of school to help search for food, he said.

The U.S. government has pledged $16 million for emergency relief; the Kenyan government has said it will come up with $10 million in food aid.

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