Massive efforts needed to respond to growing measles epidemic in DRC

Measles campaign in DRC

Democratic Republic of Congo 2019 © Pablo Garrigos/MSF

Mobilization of vaccinations and treatment key in curbing deadliest measles outbreak in years

NEW YORK/KINSHASA, DRC, JUNE 11, 2019—A massive mobilization of international and national aid organizations is needed to respond to a deadly measles epidemic officially declared on Monday in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

In the first five months of 2019, more than 1,500 measles-related deaths were officially recorded, making this the worst measles epidemic since 2011 and 2012, which had been the deadliest the country had seen in a decade. Almost all of these deaths were among children.

"MSF teams, in collaboration with the teams of the Ministry of Health, are doing their utmost to cut the chain of transmission of the disease by providing vaccination responses as soon as cases of measles are reported, and by providing care for patients," said Rachel Séguin, MSF's medical coordinator in DRC. "But, in addition to the efforts already made in recent months, more resources and support are needed. Ensuring the supply of vaccines and medicines is essential—the sooner the better."

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease for which no treatment exists. Children are particularly vulnerable to complications from measles, and the only way to protect them against the potentially life-threatening disease is vaccination. Measles remains a leading killer of young children all over the world despite the fact that an effective, low-cost vaccine has been available for decades.

Since the beginning of the year, MSF teams in DRC have vaccinated 361,079 children and provided medical care for 14,785 patients by working alongside local teams of the Ministry of Health in ten provinces of the country: Haut-Lomami, Haut-Uele, Ituri, Lualaba, Kasai, Kasai Central, North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika, and Tshopo. Given the scale of the epidemic, MSF is deploying extra teams to new health zones to combat the spread of the highly infectious disease and control the epidemic.

"Measles caused so much damage in my village," said Albertine, a resident of the health zone of Kamwesha in Kasai province, where MSF launched an emergency response in May. "There were deaths in almost every house. Some families have lost two, three, or even four children."

Measles mainly affects children. In DRC, several factors explain its recurrence, including low immunization coverage, irregular supply and access to—or even stock-outs of—vaccines, a weakened surveillance system, limited logistical means that undermine the cold chain that keeps vaccines refrigerated and effective, armed conflicts and displacement that paralyze the health system in certain areas, and financial or geographical barriers limiting or even preventing patients’ access to health facilities.

"The factors leading to the resurgence of measles are numerous, but given the recurrence of the disease, it is vital that a stable vaccine supply system is maintained in the country," said Dr. Ousmane Moussa, MSF's head of mission in DRC. "Several programs are planned to increase immunization coverage later in the year. But, in the immediate future, it is urgent to contain the impact of the epidemic to save a maximum of lives by ensuring the immunization of children and provision of care free of charge to affected patients. Targeted and flexible strategies must be adapted to the evolution of the epidemic in each health zone."

MSF has been present in DRC since 1977. The organization has several emergency response teams across the country to respond to health and humanitarian emergencies, including epidemics, pandemics, population displacement, and natural disasters. These teams also provide epidemiological surveillance and, when necessary, provide emergency-response medical actions aimed at limiting morbidity and mortality.