More actors and funding urgently needed to curb deadly measles outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo

Parents and their children wait for vaccinations in Etebe health area in Mai-Ndombe province.
Democratic Republic of Congo 2019 © Franck Ngonga
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NEW YORK/KINSHASA, DRC, August 16, 2019–A measles epidemic officially declared on June 10 in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has killed 2,758 people and infected 145,000 in the deadliest outbreak the country has witnessed since 2011.

Despite the scale of the epidemic, there is an alarming lack of actors and funds to respond to this crisis: $2.5 million of the $8.9 million required for the Health Cluster response plan has been raised. In contrast, the Ebola epidemic in the east of the country has elicited a response from multiple organizations and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.

“Two months after the official declaration and [a] few weeks before the start of the school year, the measles epidemic shows no signs of slowing down,” said Karel Janssens, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in DRC. “If we want to contain the outbreak, it is imperative to strengthen the response, and to do it immediately. A rapid and adapted response is critical to limiting the impact of measles on the communities, but on the ground we note the absence of actors and a flagrant lack of much-needed assistance.”

The epidemic has actually worsened since July, with a rise in new cases reported in several provinces, Janssens said.

Unless there is a massive mobilization of funds and response organizations, this outbreak could become even deadlier. 

Since the beginning of the year, MSF teams in DRC have vaccinated 474,863 children and provided medical care for 27,439 patients by working alongside local teams of the Ministry of health in 13 provinces around the country.

Measles vaccination in Mai-Ndombe Province
Loading of the material for vaccinations in the village of Kwamouth, Mai-Ndombe province, where MSF sent an emergency team to help curb the spread of the measles outbreak.
Democratic Republic of Congo 2019 © Franck Ngonga

MSF recently deployed an emergency team to Mai-Ndombe province, in the west of the country, to limit the spread of the epidemic in the health zones along the Kasai River—Kwamouth, Bolobo, and Nioki. The mobile team was set up to adapt the response to the needs identified in the community and reach people in remote areas where access to health care remains extremely challenging.

“Just to bring vaccines to places where children need to be vaccinated is a huge task,” said Pierre Van Heddegem, MSF field coordinator for the measles emergency team. “We have to keep the vaccines within strict temperature limits, which means setting up a ‘cold chain’. This requires refrigerators, generators, fuel, and fast transportation, as well as a maintenance system. Many health zones do not receive any support from other organizations, despite evident needs.”

Measles vaccination in Mai-Ndombe Province
The team unloads the boats in Kwamouth.
Democratic Republic of Congo 2019 © Franck Ngonga

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.

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, natural disasters. These teams also provide epidemiological surveillance and, when necessary, provide emergency-response medical actions aimed at limiting morbidity and mortality.