Guinea: “People Forget That You Can Still Die from Measles”

On February 15, 2014, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) launched a measles vaccination campaign in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. MSF plans to vaccinate close to 500,000 children from the ages of 6 months to 10 years over a two-week period.

Halimatou Touré has now been at the Donka Hospital in Conakry for five days.  Tight-lipped and expressionless, she runs her hand over the hair of her son Oumar. The tiny baby boy, who is just over a year old, has measles. He has already lost weight because the sores in his mouth make it difficult to eat; he has not nursed for the past two weeks. While measles is no longer considered a serious threat in developed countries, in Guinea, it still claims lives. Halimatou is angry. “I never knew that he had to be vaccinated; that’s why measles has taken my child.”

The pediatric unit in the hospital is always busy. Each day, more children are brought in suffering from measles, and the three hospital wards will not be able to keep up if the epidemic and detection rates continue at this pace. Like Oumar, many of the children being treated here have developed complications because the proper diagnosis was not made in time.

Dr. Namory Keita finds the situation tragic. “Some parents wait too long before coming in, and try to self-medicate,” he explains. “For example, in Guinea, the popular belief is that giving palm wine to children can cure them . . . these cases come in too late, after the spots have broken out, and after there have been complications. People tend to forget that you can still die from [measles] if it is not treated in time.”

His telephone rings. A case has been reported at one of the vaccination sites. “It’s my job,” he says. “They call me to go out and assess a child’s condition. I examine the child on-site, and if the child is seriously ill, he or she has to be referred to a more specialized center, like this one, where the more serious cases can receive treatment.”

In the shadow of a small mosque in Conakry’s Matam sub-prefecture, a team from MSF has set up its vaccination site beneath two large mango trees. Students brought by their teachers from a nearby school stand lined up in their red uniforms. A local official uses a megaphone to keep the crowd of children in order as they wait. “Our team vaccinates between 1,000 and 1,300 children a day at this site,” he says. “We have also detected and referred seven cases of infected children. I’m very pleased; we’re getting large numbers of children coming in. MSF officers have provided awareness training and so have I. This morning I got on my motorcycle at 5:00 AM to get the message out in the schools, in the courtyards, in the mosques . . .”

Guinea has a long history with measles. In 2009, ten children died in a previous epidemic, but because routine vaccinations have been falling behind, not enough children are being vaccinated today. A 95 percent immunization rate is necessary to prevent an epidemic, but just over half of Guinean children have been vaccinated.

In the sub-prefectures of Ratoma, Matoto, and Matam, where the epidemic was declared, parents are now coming forward to MSF vaccination sites in large numbers in hopes of getting their children protected. The vaccines administered by MSF during this campaign are another small step towards putting measles in Guinea’s past.