Democratic Republic of Congo: Racing against time to stem measles epidemic

© Elise Odiekila/MSF — Since October 2012, MSF has cared for over 12,700 patients and vaccinated more than 226,000 children against measles in several areas in the Orientale Province, DRC.

Kinshasa/Bunia, 20 December 2012 – A measles epidemic is spreading throughout Orientale Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Since early October, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has treated more than 12,700 patients and vaccinated more than 226,000 in several areas affected by the illness. MSF is continuing to vaccinate, but given the breadth of the epidemic, the medical humanitarian organisation is in a race against time to provide free medical care and reduce mortality.

“This measles epidemic follows a sharp and particularly deadly increase in malaria among young children this year, “says Dr Narcisse Wega, MSF emergency coordinator. “Here, too, the disease is spreading rapidly in the province and affects primarily children under five years of age.  We are facing a continuing series of epidemics that has overwhelmed the health system. The health authorities are experiencing staff shortages and frequent stock-outs of medicine and cannot address this epidemic on their own.”

Against the backdrop of this “healthcare desert,” on 5 October, MSF began sending medical teams to the Yambuku, Yalibombo, Yaleko and Yahuma health zones. The teams have treated 10,764 measles patients and vaccinated more than 226,080 children between the ages of six months and 15 years. More than 76,460 children remain to be vaccinated in Yahuma.

In November, MSF deployed additional teams to the Buta and Ganga-Dingila health zones, where more than 2,000 patients have already been treated. Mass vaccination campaigns began on 17 December and will continue in January, targeting approximately 130,000 children between six months and 15 years. Teams are also working in Niapu, in the Poko health zone, and are launching activities in Titulé.

With some 20 health zones affected by measles in Orientale Province, MSF faces huge challenges—primarily logistical – in reaching the most isolated communities and making treatment available as quickly as possible. “We are mobilising all the resources at our disposal to expand our activities into the affected areas, but the province and the needs are huge and we may soon reach the limits of our capacities,” Dr Wega notes. “We can’t deal with this province-wide epidemic alone.” 

Measles is an extremely contagious illness. If not treated in time, it may result in serious medical complications and the death of between 1 per cent and 15 per cent of the children affected.