PICTURES TELL this story far better than words. A recent one showed a child gathering individual grains of wheat that had been spilled during a distribution of food supplies. The child's care and intensity -- the importance of the effort -- was painfully obvious.

The setting was not Cambodia, but East Africa, in one of the dozen or so countries that are experiencing famine. In Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere, the combined effects of war, inept government and -- above all -- drought have brought malnutrition and starvation to at least 12 million people, the United Nations Children's Fund says.

The tragedy is that, unlike the famine that ravaged Africa's Sahel region seven years ago or the one that devastated Cambodia, the current African famine has largely failed to attract the world's attention -- and consequently its help. Private relief agencies, including many church-sponsored groups, are finding that, in contrast with their programs for Indochina, there has been only a meager public response to fund-raising efforts for aid to East Africa.

In Somalia, most of those affected are refugees from the chronic war with Ethiopia over the disputed region known as the Ogaden. Though Somalia is unquestionably the aggressor, that does not make the million or more refugees it now houses any the less hungry. The United States and the European Economic Community have been prompt and generous with emergency help, but international aid from the U.N. relief agencies has been inexcusably slow.

In Uganda, the effects of drought have been multiplied by the absence of a functioning central government. Were it not for the heroic personal efforts of the United Nations Development Fund's representative in the area -- former American ambassador Melissa Wells -- even the inadequate relief program now in place would never have materialized.

In the neighboring countries, the severity of the famine varies: there are pockets of extreme suffering and there are other areas where rainfall has been adequate and food supplies are near normal. But a constant factor is the enormous growth in population. In Kenya, where an estimated million individuals are starving, the average woman has eight children. The continent has the highest population growth rate in the world, and is the only one where per-capita food production has dropped in the last two decades.

In the long run, the need is for vigorous population control and development programs. But there is a famine and terrible human suffering now. International aid, public and private, is desperately needed. There are adequate food and medical supplies available, and plenty of relief agencies are ready to provide them. All that is lacking is an awareness of how bad East Africa's problem is -- and money.