Guinea: "People forget that you can still die from measles"

ALT N'gadi Ikram/MSFHalimatou Traoré and her son Oumar Camara, age 1, hospitalised in Donka Hospital in Conakry, Guinea, for complications due to measles.

MSF launched a measles vaccination campaign on 8 February in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, following the January 14 official declaration of an epidemic. MSF plans to vaccinate close to 500,000 children between the ages of 6 months to 10 years over a two-week period.

'It is taking lives'

Halimatou Touré has been at the Donka Hospital in Conakry now for five days. Tight-lipped and expressionless, she runs her hand over the hair of her son Oumar; his spots are very evident. The tiny baby boy, who is just over a year old, has already lost weight. Because his mouth has been abraded by the sores, he is no longer eating; he has not nursed for the past two weeks.

What has caused this situation? Measles.

While it is not considered serious in the developed countries, in Guinea, it is taking lives. Halimatou is angry. “I never knew that he had to be vaccinated; that’s why measles has taken my child.”

The paediatric unit is always busy. Each day, more children are brought in suffering from measles, and the three hospital wards will not be able to keep up if the epidemic and detection rates continue at this pace. Like Oumar, the children being treated here have often developed complications because the proper diagnosis was not been made in time.

Fatal if not treated in time

Dr. Namory Keita finds the situation tragic: “Some parents wait too long before coming in, and try to self-medicate. For example, in Guinea, the popular belief is that giving palm wine to children can cure them... these cases come in too late, after the spots have broken out, and after there have been complications. People tend to forget that you can still die from this if it is not treated in time.”

His telephone rings. A case has been reported at one of the vaccination sites: “It’s my job. They call me to go out and assess a child’s condition. I examine the child on-site, and if the child is seriously ill, he or she has to be referred to a more specialized centre, like this one, where the more serious cases can receive treatment.”

More than 1,000 children vaccinated per day

In the shadow of a small mosque, a team from MSF has set up its vaccination site beneath two large mango trees, two survivors from the urban density of the Matam commune. All lined up, with their red uniforms, students from a neighbouring school have been brought directly here by their teachers. The local official, with his megaphone, keeps the crowd of children in order as they await their turn: “Our team vaccinates between 1,000 and 1,300 children a day at this site. We have also detected and referred 7 cases of infected children. I’m very pleased; we’re getting large numbers of children coming in. MSF officers have provided awareness training and so have I. This morning again, I took to my motorcycle at 5 a.m. to get the message out in the schools, in the courtyards, in the mosques...”

Guinea and measles are no strangers: in 2009, ten children died in a previous epidemic, but because routine vaccinations have been falling behind, not enough children are being vaccinated. Just slightly over one half of Guinean children have been vaccinated. To prevent an epidemic, you need to have a 95% immunisation rate. In the communes of Ratoma, Matoto and Matam, where the epidemic was declared, parents are now coming forward in large numbers to the MSF vaccination sites in an attempt to have their children protected.