By Cornelia Walther
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 23 December 2011 – “Since her birth, I have brought my daughter regularly for vaccination to the health center,” said Benjamin Bikangi, 35. “We have so many difficulties in this country. I want her to be safe, at least from diseases.”
Soon, Mr. Bikangi’s daughter will be in good company.
Protecting children from measles
On 19 December, the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with support from UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Rotary International and other partners in the Measles Initiative, launched a six-day measles immunization campaign in Kinshasa. The campaign aims to protect over 1.7 million children aged 6-59 months against the disease.
Measles, a highly contagious viral disease, is one of the leading causes of death among young children in the country, despite the fact that a safe and effective vaccine has been available for the past 40 years. Since the start of 2011, the country registered 128,965 measles cases and 1,573 measles-related deaths.
Maman Elise Tontolo works as a nurse at the health center in Barumbu. She is well aware of the severity of the disease and the importance of vaccination. “I have been doing vaccinations for the past six years, and this is one of the most gratifying parts of my work,” she said. “It makes me happy to know that the children that come here will be protected from measles.”
Working to eradicate polio
In parallel to the measles vaccination drive, an immunization campaign against polio is taking place in six high-risk provinces, targeting 1.3 million people, of whom 1.1 million are children under age 5.
From January to mid-December, 89 cases of the wild polio virus were registered, making the Democratic Republic of the Congo the third most polio-affected country in the world. In response, UNICEF and partners are pushing for increased polio immunization in areas of concern – Kimvula, Popokabaka and the North of Katanga Province.
A multi-factor enterprise
Insufficient routine immunization coverage, weak hygiene practices and parents’ resistance to vaccination are among the three major reasons for the persistence of polio and measles in the country.
According to the country’s Multi Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS IV), 42 per cent of Congolese children between 12 and 23 months old are fully immunized against all major childhood diseases – which shows significant progress over immunization coverage in 2000. Still, protection from disease remains highly unequal: 58 per cent of children in the top quintile are entirely vaccinated, yet only 38 percent of children in the bottom quintile are, and fewer than one in seven Congolese benefit from improved hygiene conditions.
As stressed by Barbara Bentein, UNICEF Representative in the country, “Vaccination is a multi-factor enterprise – starting with the need for appropriate service delivery, cold chain, logistics, sensitization of parents, correct administration of vaccines and post-campaign monitoring. Reaching and protecting every child depends on the commitment of all stakeholders: parents, community leaders, local authorities, health staff, government and partners such as WHO, Rotary, Measles Initiative and UNICEF."