by Bill Frist

Wall Street Journal

Droughts happen. Famines ensue. Families are destroyed. You can't control Mother Nature. On a fact-finding mission to the border of Kenya and Somalia this month, I learned otherwise.

Traveling with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, I knew going in that 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of starvation and death because of the worst drought in 60 years. Five regions in war-torn Somalia are experiencing famine, and 29,000 children in the region have died in the past three months. There is much Americans can do—immediately and inexpensively—to save lives and quickly reverse the current trajectory of catastrophe.

Mrs. Biden and I spent most of our time engaging refugees who emotionally recounted their painful, weeks-long treks through parched lands with little food and water, having no choice but to leave their husbands in war-torn Somalia, often losing a child or two along the way to dehydration or lung infection.

The extreme drought has destroyed crops and caused the death of 80% of the livestock. For most Somalis who live a pastoral lifestyle, these conditions amount to an American losing their home, job and all worldly possessions, with no food or water available to beg for or borrow.

At the Dadaab camp along the Kenya-Somalia border, more than 1,600 refugees arrived on the day of our visit, bringing the total past 50,000 for the past month. Designed for 90,000 people, the camp is swollen beyond capacity with 430,000. Another 45,000, typically malnourished with crippled immune systems, wait outside the camp with little water, no sanitation, minimal health care and only makeshift shelter.

The world community has increasingly responded to the crisis in the past few weeks, but the demand continues to outstrip what is provided. The central challenge is access: The famine is centered in lawless Somalia, which is dominated by the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group al Shabaab. Nongovernmental organizations find it dangerous to operate there, as 47 aid workers have been killed over the past two years and many others kidnapped.

Mrs. Biden and I witnessed an ongoing outbreak of measles in the Dadaab camp, including a new wave among refugees in their 20s. This observation suggests an unanticipated need to vaccinate older age groups. Few Somalis have been vaccinated before coming to the camps (al Shabaab discourages vaccinations, considering them a Western intervention to be shunned). In a crowded camp of almost half a million, a small measles outbreak can explode and lead to mass casualties. Vaccinations can stop this—and each costs only a dollar.

Then there's water. Its absence causes famine, and its unclean varieties cause diarrhea that is dehydrating and can be fatal. That and acute malnutrition are the big killers. But nutrient-supplied oral fluids can bring young, malnourished children back from the brink of death within a few hours.

All these health interventions are cheap and easy to administer. A dollar goes a long way toward saving lives in Africa.

Outside of immediate crisis relief, our past investments clearly are paying off. U.S.-supported early-warning networks identified the famine threat a year ago, allowing Kenya and Ethiopia to begin stockpiling food reserves and planning regional responses. The U.S. is working with the World Food Program and the United Nations to initiate innovative programs like food vouchers that reduce corruption and better distribute food. These programs encourage regional and private-sector solutions to shortages, with smoother flow of foodstuffs from more plentiful areas to drought-stricken ones.

In times of budget cuts, we must remember that, according to Oxfam International, emergency food relief during a famine costs seven times more than preventing a disaster to begin with. Hence U.S. efforts such as the multi-year, multi-agency Feed the Future program to stimulate research into making plants more nutritious and crops more drought-resistant.

With the chaotic economy dominating the news, it's easy to focus on ourselves rather than others so far away. But when we remember that we spend only a tiny fraction of one percent of our budget on developmental aid, that recent assistance is smarter and more targeted than in the past, and that our investments in the Horn of Africa alone have saved millions of lives, each of us can be proud of our past investments and supportive of their growth in the future.

What can we do as individuals who care? A good place to start is the list of aid organizations on the website of the U.S. Agency for International Development, www.usaid.gov.

Dr. Frist, a physician and former majority leader of the U.S. Senate, is chairman of Hope Though Healing Hands.