DR Congo

Vaccination campaign in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo seeks to halt measles in its tracks

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Jonathan squints when the needle pierces his skin. “It only hurts a little bit,” he says, proud to have managed not to cry.

By Natacha Ikoli

KARISIMBI, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 4 March 2013 – “I heard on the radio that they were vaccinating children,” says Immaculée Ponzone. “That’s why I brought mine here.”

Ms. Ponzone is waiting in a queue for measles vaccinations at the Karisimbi health centre. She carries 2-year-old Jonathan on her back and holds 5-year-old Joel’s hand.

“I didn’t want my kids to be ill and get measles,” she adds. Together with many others, the little family arrived early in the morning to make sure they didn’t miss the vaccination. A year ago, her nephew contracted measles, and, though he survived, the terrible experience left the whole family shaken.

UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on a measles vaccination campaign in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Highly contagious, highly damaging – and highly preventable

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection. It attacks the immune system, making children vulnerable to deadly infections.

Measles is one of the leading causes of death of children under the age of 5, despite the presence of an effective vaccine. Survivors of measles are often left with life-long disabilities, such as blindness and brain damage.

Unvaccinated children under the age of 5 are at highest risk of measles and its complications, including death.

Last year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo had a total of 73,794 cases of measles. Outbreaks were reported in all 11 provinces. By the end of 2012, more than 2,000 children had died of measles.

At higher risk

When an outbreak occurs, internally displaced persons can be exceptionally vulnerable to contagious disease, as multiple displacements may have prevented them from participating in vaccination campaigns.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the volatility of the situation in the East means that routine vaccinations in rural areas have often been undermined. Immaculée, for example, is not entirely sure which vaccinations she and her children have already had.

In addition, according to head of Karisimbi health zone Dr. José Asongya, “Displaced populations are more at risk in the face of measles. Some are undernourished, and, therefore, measles finds it a suitable ground to thrive. Furthermore, the close proximity in which displaced people live is a factor favouring transmission of the disease.”

Five-day vaccination campaign

“A large number of the people here are returnees,” continues Dr. Asongya. “Many of them have moved a lot and live in sites for displaced people in an extremely precarious socio-economic environment. So far, we have seen some sporadic cases – and we started the vaccination to protect as many people as soon as possible.”

The five-day vaccination campaign in which Ms. Ponzone is taking part was coordinated by the Ministry of Public Health together with UNICEF and its partner Merlin in North Kivu province.

The measles prevention response led by UNICEF and Merlin have already reached 96 per cent of the targeted 1,179,992 children between 6 months and 15 years old, most of them in seven specific vulnerable health districts.

In line with the country’s interagency 2013 Humanitarian Action Plan, UNICEF is appealing for US$134,560,000 to meet the humanitarian needs of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 2013. Without this additional funding, UNICEF will be unable to support the national response to the country’s continuing nutrition crisis or provide protection and critical multi-sectorial assistance to displaced children and their families.