Editor's Note: William Frist, the former Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate, is a physician. 

CNN photo

(CNN) -- Why should Americans care about the unfolding crisis in Somalia when our own economy is in chaos? 

To shed some light on that question, I joined Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, on a fact-finding mission over the past several days to a Somali refugee camp close to the Kenya-Somalia border. 

We saw the answer as we listened to a grief-stricken mother of five, who had marched for 15 days across the parched Somali land to find food and security in a border camp. They arrived malnourished, sick and thirsty to a camp of 430,000 other refugees. They competed with 1,500 others who had made it to the camp that day, only to find it filled to capacity. Inside they would find adequate food and water. 

They would find the vaccinations that are saving the lives of thousands. They would survive because of the generosity of Americans (the U.S. is responsible for 47% of the food being provided) and increasingly because of members of the world community who are standing up, in spite of challenging times in their own communities. 

More than 29,000 children have died over the past three months in what is the most acute food security emergency on Earth. It's worsening by the minute and outstripping available supplies. Thousands never make it to the camps, and those that do might have to wait outside the confines where 50,000 others are waiting. 

Drawing from my experiences as a doctor in refugee camps in southern Sudan and Darfur, the conditions Biden and I saw this week constitute among the worst, the result of a cruel nexus of war, drought and poverty. The issue is complex, but we know with certainty that a primary focus on health greatly improves the chances of preventing death and of establishing security throughout the Horn of Africa. It's a worthy investment.

Drought occurs regularly throughout the region, but a dysfunctional government in Somalia is incapable of responding. Direct access by the international aid community is difficult and dangerous. This is why our focus on assistance in Ethiopia and Kenya is essential.

The five regions of famine in Somalia lead to death locally and to an exodus of children and families to Kenya and Ethiopia for food. The arrival each day of 1,400 to 2,000 new Somali refugees to the Dadaab Camp alone places a huge food, economic and environmental stress on eastern Kenya.

The good news for the American taxpayer is that investments by our humanitarian and development organizations have worked. Through past advances in agriculture and food security led by the United States, we learned that from the more plentiful regions of Kenya, food is flowing to the areas of greatest need. Even though tens of thousands have died in recent weeks because of the famine, I am certain that the number would have been much higher if the American people had not so smartly invested over the past decade. 

Drought and famine are not new to the Horn of Africa. By examining past famines, we have learned that among the most important acute interventions is taking steps to improve health. This primacy of health is not generally recognized by the public, but it is by USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, who accompanied us. 

Drought leads to famine, and famine leads to deteriorating health. Therapeutic health intervention with vaccines and oral rehydration is easy and cheap. But we have to get material to the region. And that is why the increased aid of $105 million announced Monday by our government is so important. This also shows that we can make such a difference as individuals through our own contributions (see http://www.usaid.gov/ for organizations). 

The region is witnessing the worst drought in 60 years with more than 12 million people in need of outside assistance. Even though contributions by government, NGOs and the international community are growing, the needs are growing faster than the world is responding.

Will the American people respond in these difficult times? I know based on my experiences in southern Sudan, Darfur, Chad, Haiti and Bangladesh that the American people will give generously and support our nation's ongoing response.

Americans are at their best when they respond unselfishly to others in need -- and they do so generously when they know that their investments, both personal gifts and government contributions, have value in saving lives in the short-term and supporting prevention in the long-term.

They know that their help will make a difference. Americans will act as they always do to help those in need.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Frist.

This week I traveled with Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden to refugee camps in eastern Kenya along the Somali border to witness the impact of the most acute food security emergency on earth. We need your help, and your help I promise will make a difference.

Yesterday we visited intake centers just on the border where over 1,500 Somalis who walked for weeks with their starving children (over 29,000 young children have died of malnutrition and disease in Somalia alone over the past 90 days) arrive each day to find food and a safe place to live. But the camps are at capacity (the Dadaab camp has 430,000 refugees today; it was designed for 90,000) and new arrivals are left to fend for themselves on the outskirts of the camp.
Yesterday, I visited the Dadaab Refugee Complex in eastern Kenya with Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. While there, we heard stories from mothers with their children who had lost their husbands. Families who had journeyed for weeks to arrive at the camp malnourished and in dire need of medical assistance. And, worst of all, parents who had heartbreaking stories of losing children in the flight from famine in Somalia.
Over 29,000 young children have died of malnutrition and disease in Somalia over the past 90 days. We are now on our way to the Horn of Africa to see what more we as a nation can do.

Early this morning, our plane left Washington DC bound for East Africa. I’m flying with Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden and USAID Administrator Raj Shah to study the famine affecting the lives of over 12 million people, many of them children.

In fact, it is now being called “The Children’s Famine.”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                       
August 5, 2011                                                                                       

 

Contact Information:
Jenny Dyer   (615) 818-5579

Frist, Biden to Visit East Africa Refugee Camp

Senator Bill Frist, MD and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden will travel to the Horn of Africa to witness the severe famine affecting almost 12 million people in the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released yesterday that the delegation led by Biden would be traveling to Kenya this weekend on a fact-finding mission.

Over 2.3 million children are estimated to be suffering from malnutrition in the Horn of Africa. If these children and others do not receive food supplies, clean water, and health care in the coming weeks, mortality rates will soar.

Doctor-Senator Frist is especially interested in the medical needs of the victims in the refugee camps: “We know these refugees, who have traveled so many miles from their homes, desperately need food, water, shelter, and safety. But they also need medical attention. Children especially need access to vaccinations, Vitamin A, deworming tablets, and oral rehydration to fight sickness and disease.”

Measles, polio, malaria, and diarrhea are constant threats to the lives of the most vulnerable in these camps.

Frist will be observing the distribution of care at a camp and hearing the stories of the refugees so that he can promote awareness and advocacy on behalf of these people living on the brink of death.

Aid agencies currently estimate that over a $1 billion shortfall is needed immediately to stop the spread of the famine and to begin to save lives in this critical period.

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by Jenny Eaton Dyer, Ph.D.

The numbers are staggering. Over 12 million people are reported to be in dire need of food and clean water. And more continue to trickle in daily to the refugee camps. Somalia has seen famines before, but this is said to be the worst. Perhaps the greatest crisis of the decade.

Today, Mohammad Ibrahim writes about the emergency in the NYT, "Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape from Famine."

It is an extremely complex and difficult situation. Aid agencies are having trouble getting into and providing care for the most vunerable. Governmental funding is especially and desperately needed to avert the loss of millions of lives. 

How can you help? For starters, support Save the Children.

East Africa Drought and Food Crisis: A dollar a day for 100 days can help us keep a child alive. Give online at www.savethechildren.org/food-crisis-6 or text "SURVIVE" to 20222 to donate $10 (Standard message rates apply)

Recommended Reading: "Global Food Crisis Takes Heavy Toll in East Africa," by Samuel Loewenberg, in The Lancet.

When thinking about public health in the developed world, we generally think about preventing chronic disease through behavior change. However, in Mshenguville (the informal settlement/shack town in Munsieville), the public health needs are drastically different and much more basic. One of the key issues in Mshenguville is the need for basic sanitation/waste management. Illegal dumping around various sites in Mshenguville occurs because people do not think that there other alternatives and do not understand the consequences of poor sanitation.

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