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By George Obulutsa
BURAO, Somalia (Reuters) - Deadly cholera is spreading through drought-ravaged Somalia as clean water sources dry up, a top aid official said, deepening a humanitarian crisis in a country that is on the verge of famine.
The Horn of Africa nation has recorded more than 18,000 cases of cholera so far this year, up from around 15,000 in all of 2016 and 5,000 in a normal year, Johan Heffinck, the Somalia head of EU Humanitarian Aid, said in an email on Thursday.
The current strain of the disease is unusually deadly, killing around 1 in 45 patients.
Somalia is suffering from a severe drought that means more than half of its 12 million citizens are expected to need aid by July. Families have been forced to drink slimy, infected water after the rains failed and wells and rivers dried up.
"We are very close to famine," Heffinck said.
The Security Information Network (FSIN), which is co-sponsored by the United Nations food agency, said in a report on Friday Somalia was one of four African countries at high risk of famine.
Somalia's rainy season normally runs from March to May, but there has been no rain this month.
The drought has hit particularly hard in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland, where the rains began to fail in 2015, killing off animals that nomadic families rely on to survive.
'THIS IS THE LAST BOTTLE'
Listless, skinny children last week lay in crowded wards in the main hospital in the regional capital Hargeisa.
Three-year-old Nimaan Hassid had diarrhoea for 20 days before his mother brought him to hospital. He weighs only 6.5 kilograms, less than half the normal weight for his age.
Doctors say he is suffering from severe malnutrition but his grandmother, 60-year-old Fadumo Hussein, told Reuters the family has no money for food or clean water.
"We don’t have mineral water to give to the sick child. This is the last bottle," she said, carefully pouring it into a feeding tube inserted through his nose.
In the malnutrition ward in the general hospital of Somaliland's second city Burao, doctor Hamud Ahmed said children were also being hit hard by diseases like tuberculosis, meningitis and measles.
Children's admissions reached almost 60 in March, up fourfold from October.
"This is due to the drought," Ahmed said. "When families lose all their livestock and children do not get milk, this is the famine that causes the children to suffer."
If the rains fail, the country could tip into famine. Somalia's last famine, in 2011, killed more than 260,000 people.
Heffinck said aid agencies were working overtime to try to prevent a similar disaster, trucking in clean water and stepping up the distribution of food and cash.
"The big difference this time is that we have started the preparation and scaling up of the relief operations earlier," he said.
(Additional reporting by Abdirahman Hussein; editing by Katharine Houreld and John Stonestreet)