The unfolding food crisis in southern Africa threatens to become a major humanitarian catastrophe if an immediate and adequate response is not mounted, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned today.”In a region already bearing the full brunt of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the food crisis presents a new and ominous threat to the survival of the most vulnerable – the children and women,” said Urban Jonsson, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, in a statement issued today. He added that “a rapid assessment of nutritional status undertaken by UNICEF in Malawi last month shows that some 45,000 children are facing severe malnutrition, with the situation likely to worsen in the 2002-2003 lean season.” According to UNICEF, reviews of under-five and antenatal clinic records are showing that moderate malnutrition levels are also rising and the trend is likely to continue and probably worsen due to poor maize harvest caused by drought and floods. The Malawi assessment shows that the number of children presenting moderate malnutrition at under-five clinics in the last six months has trebled, the UN agency notes, adding that the trend is the same with pregnant and lactating women. Even more alarming, UNICEF warns, is the finding that some of the moderately malnourished children are deteriorating due to severe malnutrition. Six countries in the sub-region – Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland – have all reported significant food deficits. UNICEF says it has provided supplementary and therapeutic feeding to children and fortified maize meal to pregnant and breastfeeding women at various centres in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is also working with governments in the region to conduct door-to-door measles vaccination campaigns to prevent potential outbreaks, as well as providing water and sanitation supplies to counter a cholera outbreak that has so far claimed over 600 lives. The agency notes that it is working with its partners to ensure that children, especially girls, can continue attending school while efforts are ongoing to assess the extent of disruption to their lives in order to implement special protection measures.