WASHINGTON, August 9, 2011 (AFP) – US officials on Tuesday called on other countries to sharply increase aid to famine and drought-hit east Africa, warning that the needs of the starving outstrip the pace of assistance.

US officials made the appeal after returning from a visit to Kenya with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, which included a tour of refugee camps and meetings with top government figures.

Gayle Smith, a special assistant to President Barack Obama, said the United States was already the lead donor, having contributed 560 million dollars, including 105 million dollars announced Monday.

“We will continue to support the relief effort,” Smith said in a conference call with journalists.

“But we are also aggressively reaching out to other countries, because this is of a scale that we certainly can’t do it alone. We need other countries to step up with us.”

Smith said the “biggest need quite frankly now is for cash contributions.”

Such funds enable UN agencies and non-government organizations “to provide whatever may be needed the most effectively, whether it is food, whether it is therapeutic feeding, whether it’s access to water,” she added.

Former Tennessee Senator Bill Frist warned that “in spite of the US stepping up and the world stepping up, the demands and the needs are growing even faster than what is being provided” to help victims of the famine.

Frist, a Republican, said his participation in the tour pointed up the bipartisan effort that is needed to fight famine at a time when Democrats and Republicans squabble over how to deal with the worsening US economy.

Many people do not realize, especially in a troubled economic environment, that “this is the most acute food security emergency anywhere in the world, now and in recent years,” Frist said.

The United Nations last month declared famine in two areas of southern Somalia, as the world slowly mobilized to help 12 million people battling hunger in the region’s worst drought in 60 years.

Tens of thousands of people have already died and parts of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti are also hit by drought.

Thousands of Somalis fleeing the famine have poured into Kenya and Ethiopia, compounding the problems faced by those two nations.

Around 12.4 million people in the region currently face acute food shortages and 3.2 million in Somalia need “immediate lifesaving assistance,” the UN said.