DR Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo: measles cases dangerously on the increase

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Published: 4 April 2011

Infancy can be a time of grave danger for children born today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as measles is once again spreading with ruthless vigour.

A total of 16,112 suspected cases of measles have been reported since early 2011 with a death toll of 106 children – 90 of whom are in Katanga province, according to the latest figures provided by local health authorities. The situation may be exacerbated and claim even more lives with a new cholera outbreak detected in and around Kisangani, in the north of the country.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the American Red Cross, which helped found a global public–private partnership leading the fight against measles, urgently call on partners at all levels to work together under the leadership of the relevant local health authorities to launch an immediate response to these outbreaks.

The Red Cross Red Crescent commends the relevant authorities and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in their efforts to vaccinate more than 1.5 million children in response to the current crisis. The Red Cross in DRC is currently working to increase the number of volunteers that will be mobilized for a huge vaccination campaign.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the size of Western Europe. The remnants of years of armed conflict and a crumbling health infrastructure, combined with significant population movement, means that thousands of children are vulnerable to measles.

Consequently, health inequity is a major issue in the DRC, with vast differences existing in people's health and their access to healthcare in rural and remote areas compared with towns and cities. The majority of people in rural areas are still confronted with obstacles in accessing health facilities because means of transport are both rare and often unaffordable.

"The success of measles vaccination campaigns depends largely on spreading the word to communities," says Dr Alain Kapete, from the Red Cross of the DRC. "Red Cross volunteers make door-to-door visits to ensure all children, especially those in remote villages, are included in the immunization campaign. We need to vaccinate as many children as possible to prevent the spread of the virus."

Most recently, in October and November 2010, the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo mobilized 1,000 volunteers for vaccination campaigns against wild poliovirus. These campaigns also integrated measles vaccine in certain districts. Additionally, the local Red Cross society has ongoing activities to strengthen routine immunization in 65 zones de santé as part of the Civil Society Constituency consortium receiving funding from the GAVI Alliance.

"The Measles Initiative has successfully contributed to a 92 per cent reduction of measles mortality in Africa between 2000 and 2008," says Kate Elder, an IFRC senior health officer.

"Unfortunately, due to a reduction in funding for this highly effective partnership, future vaccination campaigns against measles are being compromised and immunization remains an unfinished business."

In 2010, 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa reported measles outbreaks, with more than 1,200 deaths confirmed due to measles.

Measles is a highly contagious virus, spread by contact with an infected person through coughing and sneezing, affecting mostly children. The symptoms include high fever, severe skin rash and cough and can cause complications such as pneumonia, malnutrition, severe dehydration, and ear and eye infections that can lead to blindness. Measles remains a killer of around 164,000 children each year, according to the Measles Initiative.

Launched in 2001, the Measles Initiative – led by the American Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Health Organization – provides technical and financial support to governments and communities for mass vaccination campaigns and disease surveillance around the world. The initiative has supported the vaccination of more than 700 million children helping to reduce measles deaths by 78 per cent globally (compared to 2000). To learn more, visit www.measlesinitiative.org.

Read the advocacy report by the IFRC, produced in partnership with the GAVI Alliance, Immunization: unfinished business.

For more information or to set up interviews, please contact:

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

Nelly Tangua, director of communications, information and reporting, Tel.: +243 999673168, nellymanou@yahoo.fr

In Dakar:

Moustapha Diallo, communications officer, West Africa, Tel.: +221 774 501 004, moustapha.diallo@ifrc.org

In Yaoundé:

Emmanuel Atenga, regional communications officer, Tel.: +237 22 21 74 37, Mobile: +237 79 50 90 51, emmanuelatenga@yahoo.fr, Skype: emmanuel.atenga

In Johannesburg:

Faye Callaghan, communications manager, Africa, Tel.: +27 71 895 2774, faye.callaghan@ifrc.org

In Geneva:

Sadia Kaenzig, Senior adviser, external and public communications, Tel.: +41 79 217 3386, sadia.kaenzig@ifrc.org

In the United States:

Abi Weaver, senior communications officer, American Red Cross, Tel.: +1 202 303 5551, weaverab@usa.redcross.org