A measles epidemic is spreading in the north of DRC, affecting ten of thousands of children. Photograph by Tristan Pfund
Feature story |

MSF team vaccinated 38,000 children against measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Photograph by Tristan Pfund
A measles epidemic is spreading in the north of DRC, affecting ten of thousands of children. Photograph by Tristan Pfund

Last week, the emergency unit of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in South Kivu ended the vaccination campaign in the district of Minova after reaching nearly 38,000 children and young people between 6 months to 15 years. The vaccination campaign in different parts of eastern DRC now continues in the neighboring district of Kalonge

The immunization campaign took place for about three weeks, from 27 June to 16 July in four health areas (Lumbishi, Numbi, Shanje and Tushunguti) in the hilly surroundings of the town of Minova, the so called Hauts Plateaux. Moving in this environment is often very complicated as some areas can only be reached on foot or at most on motorcycle, and that makes it difficult to keep the necessary cold chain and to preserve the vaccines to be administered. Various armed groups are active in the area and armed clashed make access to some remote spots even more complicated.

Although the initial goal was to vaccinate 25,000 people, the final number was nearly 38,000. This difference is due mainly to the lack of reliable data on the settled population in various parts of the country and to the arrival at vaccination posts of people from neighboring areas.

Almost two thirds of those vaccinated (23,257 of a total of 37,852 people) were children under five. More than half of the smaller children (almost 15,000) passed a basic test of malnutrition, known as MUAC, which measures the circumference of the arm, and nearly 500 of them had some degree of malnutrition.

The emergency team has now moved on to the nearby area Kalonge, also in South Kivu, where it will continue the vaccination and is expected to immunize at least 65,000 more individuals in the next two weeks.

MSF teams have regularly intervened to help immunize the population and last year over a million people were vaccinated, but the routine immunization is not enough to prevent episodic outbreaks. In late 2012, one of these outbreaks affected more than 700 children in the district of Bunyakiri, next to Minova.

Measles can be fatal in children if untreated but is very easy to prevent by vaccination. It is an extremely contagious disease that can cause complications such as pneumonia, malnutrition, severe dehydration, ear infections and eye infections that can even lead to blindness.  Mortality rates vary considerably depending on the context, but when a population has not been vaccinated, measles can end the life of between 1 and 15% of children affected.

For decades, the DRC has witnessed measles outbreaks with a major resurgence of the disease since 2010. Since then measles has killed more than 4,500 people in the country, especially children under five years. A retrospective study conducted by Epicentre, the epidemiological research MSF center, indicates that between 2010 and 2013 almost 300,000 measles cases were registered in the DRC (nearly two-thirds of them were children under 5) and over 5.000 patients died. According to this report, the cases fell by more than 20% after the vaccination campaigns started.