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More than 5,000 dead under Ethiopia’s Tigray blockade – report

Nearly 1,500 people died of malnutrition in part of Ethiopia’s blockaded Tigray region over a four-month period last year, including more than 350 young children, a report by the region’s health bureau says.

It cites more than 5,000 blockade-related deaths in all from hunger and disease in the largest official death toll yet associated with the country’s war.

“Deaths are alarmingly increasing,” including from easily preventable diseases like rabies as medicines run out or expire, the head of Tigray’s health bureau, Hagos Godefay, told the Associated Press late last year as the findings were being compiled.

“This is one of the worst times of my life, I can tell you.”

His report on the findings, published on Wednesday by the independent Ethiopia Insight, said 5,421 deaths were confirmed in Tigray between July and October in an assessment by his bureau and some international aid groups.

It was the first such assessment since the war between Tigray and Ethiopian forces began in November 2020, he said.

The deaths were overwhelmingly from malnutrition, infectious disease and non-communicable diseases as the health bureau and partners sought to gauge the effects on Tigray’s population of its health system being largely destroyed by combat.

The deaths do not reflect people killed in combat, Mr Hagos told AP on Thursday in a call from the Tigray capital, Mekele, although the report reflects a small percentage of deaths from air strikes.

The mortality assessment covered roughly 40% of Tigray, he said, since occupation of some areas by combatants and the lack of fuel caused by the blockade has limited data-gathering and aid delivery.

“Since the magnitude of the destruction and health crisis in the inaccessible areas is undoubtedly high, the survey is bound to underreport the real extent of the crisis,” Mr Hagos wrote.

Severe acute malnutrition in children under five, at less than 2% in Tigray before the war, is now above 7%, he said. The assessment found at least 369 under-fives had died of malnutrition, part of 1,479 people in all.

AP last year confirmed the first starvation deaths under the blockade along with the government’s ban on humanitarian workers bringing medicines into Tigray.

Mr Hagos told AP that without medical supplies or vaccines, easily preventable diseases like measles were emerging in Tigray and Covid-19 has begun to spread.

HIV patients “are coming all the time to my office to ask if drugs are coming or not. But my hands are tied”, he said.

Earlier this month, the United Nations said Ethiopia’s government had released more than 850,000 measles vaccines to Tigray.

Ethiopia’s government cut off almost all access to food aid, medical supplies, cash and fuel in June last year when the Tigray forces regained control of the region.

Since then, the UN has repeatedly warned that less than 15% of the needed supplies have been entering Tigray under what it called a de facto humanitarian blockade.

Ethiopia’s government has expressed concern about aid falling into the hands of fighters.

Under a new wave of pressure this month after Tigray forces retreated back into their region amid a military offensive, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday that it was working with aid partners to facilitate daily cargo flights to Tigray “to transport much-needed medicines and supplies”.

The government in part has blamed issues with aid delivery on insecurity it says is caused by Tigray forces.

It is not clear when the daily flights will begin, though the International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday announced that it had made its first delivery of medical supplies to Tigray since September, calling it “a huge relief”.

An ICRC spokeswoman told AP the cargo of surgical supplies and essential drugs would help to treat at least 200 injured people, and that the group intends to send more in the coming weeks.

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