By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid agencies are feeding life-saving peanut paste to thousands of starving Rohingya children who fled violence in Myanmar, amid warnings of a looming "catastrophe".
The United Nations children agency UNICEF said some 480,000 Rohingya - mostly children - who have sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh since August face a "huge life-threatening emergency".
"We are talking about massive numbers of people who are arriving starving, with sick and wounded children, needing sanitation and shelter on a huge scale," Oliver White, a UNICEF policy expert, said in a statement after visiting Bangladesh.
He said more than 14,000 children are severely and acutely malnourished, and the situation risked spinning out of control, with the threat of death from malnutrition and disease or possible rioting as frustrations mount.
"The Rohingya refugee crisis (is) on the verge of becoming (a) humanitarian catastrophe," UNICEF said earlier this week.
A UNICEF spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that it is giving nutritional supplies to about 250,000 Rohingya children, including ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to treat severe malnutrition.
"The new Rohingya refugees are coming from an area where the nutrition status is already a concern," Jean-Jacques Simon, UNICEF spokesman for South Asia, said in an email.
If more refugees arrive, aid agencies might not be able to cope and more people might die, he said.
Simon said malnourished children need to take the paste for an average of six weeks before returning to good health.
The energy-packed peanut paste can be eaten straight from the packet, reducing the risk of contamination with dirty water.
Vaccination against measles, rubella and polio is underway for 150,000 newly arrived children under 15, UNICEF said.
Aid group Doctors Without Borders said last week that Bangladesh's refugee camps were on the brink of a "public health disaster" with a very high risk of an infectious disease outbreak as new arrivals continue to soar.
U.N. experts have been pressing Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to personally meet with the Rohingya Muslim minority, who are denied citizenship and classified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite claiming roots in the region that go back centuries.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has rejected accusations that its forces are engaged in ethnic cleansing, saying there was no evidence.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Katy Migiro and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.