Measles epidemic hits district in Democratic Republic of Congo

MSF starts vaccination programme

Goma (DRC), 2 September 1999 - The international medical aid agency Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) has begun a large-scale programme of measles vaccination in the Orientale province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A conflict has recently flared up again between two ethnic groups in this region, with an estimated 40,000 people being made homeless as a result. A measles epidemic has broken out among the displaced. The number of cholera and plague cases has also increased sharply.

A violent conflict between the Hema and Lendu tribes has been going on in the Ituri district of eastern DRC since mid-June. The two ethnic groups, which have long been hostile to each other, have come to blows over land concessions, but the conflict also reflects deeper ethnic differences. The Hema are mainly stock-breeders. Although they form a minority, they generally occupy better social positions and are more affluent. The Lendu on the other hand are mostly farmers. The conflict is being largely fought out with spears, machetes and poisoned arrows - although firearms are also being used.

The war is reported to have already claimed a large number of dead and injured. An estimated 40,000 displaced are living in conditions of poor hygiene without proper medical facilities.

Health centres in the region have been looted, torched and abandoned so that the local population and displaced persons alike are largely deprived of medical aid. Because people cannot go out to their fields, there is a shortage of food and consequently malnutrition. This combination of underfeeding, overcrowding and scanty vaccination has resulted in a measles epidemic. Some 30,000-35,000 children will be vaccinated against measles in the next few days.

MSF will also distribute anti-cholera drugs and will support health posts on both sides of the conflict, carrying out reconstruction and
providing supplies and medicines.

Spurred on by the spread of cholera in the region, MSF has distributed medicines and water purification equipment. It further intends to approach other international aid organisations in order to guarantee clean drinking water in the longer term.

Together with local health services, MSF is examining measures that can be taken against plague. This disease is endemic in the region, but instead of the usual handful of cases per year there have been 18 since the beginning of August, five of them fatal.

MSF has been operating in Ituri District since 1993. The organisation has a total of 13 expats in the east of DRC, three of whom are now working on the aid programme in Ituri district in close collaboration with local staff. Apart from the International Red Cross, MSF is the only foreign aid organisation in Congo's Orientale province.