NEW YORK, JULY 28, 2017—As measles sweeps across Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), more than one million children have been vaccinated against the deadly disease during a nine-month campaign by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Measles, which is extremely contagious and typically spreads through sneezing and coughing, mainly affects children, especially those under five years old. The disease can be deadly for those who suffer complications and fail to receive treatment. In addition to supporting the country’s Ministry of Health through vaccinations, MSF teams have treated more than 41,000 children for the disease since November 2016 in Maniema, Lomami, Tanganyika, Ituri, South Kivu, and Equateur provinces.
Children living in remote areas are particularly vulnerable to measles due to the lack of available care and people’s inability to pay for it. Specifically, children who suffer from measles with complications often don’t have access to treatment or arrive for treatment too late.
“Long distances to reach the health facilities, the lack of economic resources to afford treatment, the use of traditional remedies—all of these factors endanger children’s health in these areas,” said Faustin Igulu, health promotion manager for MSF’s emergency response team in DRC. “This is why we do all that we can to reach the most remote villages and settlements where children otherwise would have no access to healthcare or vaccines. Many children we have taken care of arrived in a serious condition at the hospital because of the difficulties of reaching healthcare services. Children risk their lives if they are treated too late.”
For the measles vaccine to be effective, at least 95 percent of children ages six months to 15 years old need to be vaccinated. In a country as large as DRC, where roads are often poor or non-existent and travelling can be hampered by insecurity, there are considerable logistical constraints to reaching children in certain areas. MSF teams often travel by motorbike and on foot down narrow forest trails to reach the most remote areas.
“My team and I wanted to reach a particular area of Equateur province, around 20 km from Bolomba,” Igulu said. “As there are no roads, we used motorbikes. We had to lift the motorbikes, the cool boxes containing the vaccines, and all the rest of the equipment we needed onto wooden planks to cross the rivers. When the trails became too narrow, we left the motorbikes and walked through the forest for hours.”
Despite the numbers of children already vaccinated, MSF is continuing its efforts to bring the epidemic to a halt. MSF teams are currently vaccinating children against measles and providing treatment free of charge in the provinces of Tshopo, and South Kivu.
MSF calls on the Ministry of Health, international organizations, and donors to rapidly and dramatically scale up their response to the multiple outbreaks of measles occurring throughout the country.
MSF has worked in DRC for 35 years and currently supports the Ministry of Health in 11 provinces, providing healthcare to victims of conflict and violence, to displaced people, and to people affected by epidemics including HIV/AIDS. MSF’s emergency response teams are ready to respond countrywide in the event of disease outbreaks, natural disasters, or conflict.