Congo measles epidemic worsens


A MEASLES epidemic sweeping through the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is spiralling out of control, according to an aid agency working in the country.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says it has already vaccinated 1.5 million people against the disease, but that new cases are arriving too quickly for it to control.

“The zone where the epidemic is prevalent is growing fast” said Gaël Hankenne, MSF head of Mission in the DRC.

“So far we can cope with the situation but the outbreak is moving north very quickly and it is going to be impossible for us to tackle.” MSF said that it has no figures on how many people have already died from the outbreak, but that it had already registered 21,000 cases in several provinces where it worked, a huge increase on previous years.

“Vaccine coverage is quite low so we have to act now” said Hankenne, adding that measles can kill up to 15 per cent of children affected in unvaccinated populations and up to 25 per cent among vulnerable groups such as the displaced and those who have limited access to healthcare. “As you can imagine, in a country as big as DRC, those areas are massive.”

A similar outbreak in 2010 took a heavy toll in African countries with low levels of immunisation and where religious groups urged people not to vaccinate their children. In Zimbabwe, the outbreak began among two Apostolic religious sects that told followers they would be excommunicated if their children were immunised, leading to 517 deaths out of 8,173 cases reported, says UNICEF.

Measles deaths among children under five years old fell to 118,000 in 2008 from 733,000 in 2000, the United Nations World Health Organisation said last year, a 92 per cent drop. However, it warned that a lack of funding and political commitment could result in a return to more than 500,000 cases of measles deaths per year by 2012, wiping out gains to date.

In 2009, more than 2.4 million children in the Eastern and Southern Africa sub-region (20 per cent of all children younger than one year) were not reached by routine immunisation.