The Democratic Republic of Congo has witnessed an upsurge of measles with more than 13,000 cases reported since January this year.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), many of the cases are complicated and associated with malnutrition.
The DRC Ministry of Health declared a measles outbreak on June 10, 2019, that resulted in at least 210 deaths according to Médecins Sans Frontières.
However, plans to mount an anti-measles campaign planned in December 2019, and the subsequent campaigns scheduled for 2020 were halted by the onset of Covid-19 as most humanitarian organisation and the government were responding to the new outbreak.
Measles is a contagious viral disease, 10 times more contagious than Covid-19, and a leading cause of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.
“Since the end of 2020, several provinces have started recording increased number of patients with measles, notably the North and South Ubangi provinces,” said Anthony Kergosien, coordinator of MSF’s emergency response team in the DRC.
"We had to urgently send mobile response teams to help stem the progression and save as many lives as possible."
MSF has now deployed medical emergency teams to hard-to-reach areas of North Ubangi, South Ubangi, Bas-Uéle and Maniema provinces.
In December, the situation got worse in the Bogose-Nubea health zone in South Ubangi. In only a few weeks, MSF treated nearly 5,000 patients with measles – the vast majority of them children.
“We vaccinated 70,000 children, quickly halting the spread of the disease. The team then headed to the neighbouring province of North Ubangi, where the Bosobolo health zone was also in critical condition,” Mr Kergosien said.
Local staff have been trained in managing patients with measles and supervise the provision of care, notably for patients with severe measles.
"Since we arrived in Bosobolo in mid-February, we have been helping staff to care for their patients in eight health centres and in the general hospital to which complicated cases are referred," said Faustin Igulu, who is leading the MSF project in Bosobolo. “More than 1,200 patients have already been treated. The hospital’s capacity had been quickly overwhelmed, so we increased the number of beds where they could treat children, some of whom were in a very advanced stage of measles and associated malnutrition."
The measles outbreak has now mirrored Ebola which was reported in the DRC early this year.
Measles is a viral disease spread by coughing, sneezing or through direct contact with nasal or laryngeal secretions.
Children with the disease can face severe complications, as measles ‘erases’ their immune memory, putting their health and lives at risk for years to come.
An inexpensive and 85 per cent efficient vaccine exists, which protects vaccinated people for decades.
A national vaccination and surveillance programme has been hampered by major weaknesses, including a very high birth rate exposes new children to the disease every day.
DRC also faces an under-equipped health system, which is unable to ensure consistent quality healthcare; and health providers trying to access certain regions must overcome entrenched geographic and security difficulties.