Since November 2016, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has vaccinated over 675,000 children against measles, and cared for more than 14,000 patients, throughout five provinces in Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.
MSF teams are currently supporting the DRC Ministry of Health’s fight against measles. “We are facing a serious situation that requires a significant response effort. Time is of the essence for everyone involved: MSF, the Congolese authorities and other partners. We need to react quickly and decisively to prevent the spread of this highly contagious disease,” explains Jeroen Beijnsberger, head of the MSF mission in Kinshasa.
To guarantee effective immunization coverage (the vaccination of 95 per cent of children aged 6 months to 14 years) the teams must cover even the most remote areas. In a country as huge as the DRC, which also lacks road infrastructure, this can mean travelling hundreds of kilometres on motorbike, crossing rivers in dugout canoes, or walking for days through an inhospitable forest.
“To reach the village of Yalombe, I and three colleagues had to walk for six days, there and back, in the Lomami Park forest. We slept outdoors in the middle of the forest and had to ration our food supplies. We had to walk 120 kilometres through tall grasses covered in ants that sometimes got into our underwear. All of that was necessary to reach the village where our teams had to vaccinate more than 1,600 children,” says Daniel Cibangu, a nurse with one of the MSF teams working in Maniema province.
Logistics can be particularly challenging in more dangerous regions affected by the presence of armed groups, such as South Kivu and Tanganyka.
Vaccination: The best weapon against measles
In addition to immunization campaigns, MSF teams are delivering medical care to measles patients, mainly children under the age of 10, providing outpatient treatment of symptoms, with a particular focus on malnourished children suffering from measles, as they are particularly vulnerable.
“When measles arrived in our village, a lot of children died, especially when the parents turned to traditional medicine. But those who rushed to the health centres were able to see that their children were saved,” explains Mwayuma Ramazani in the Kindu general referral hospital in Maniema province, where her child was hospitalized for measles complications. “I learned that MSF was there to help, so when my child got a fever I decided to go to the health centre. When I arrived at the centre, the MSF mobile team took us to the hospital.”
“In Manono, in Tanganyka province, nearly 900 children were hospitalized in January. Malnutrition is still a problem: malnourished children are weak and particularly susceptible to different illnesses, including measles,” says Gaudia Storni, MSF’s field manager.
Since November 2016, MSF teams have cared for more than 14,000 children in the provinces where they work.
According to official statistics, in recent years the Democratic Republic of Congo has had some success fighting measles. The number of cases fell by more than 95 per cent between 2011 and 2015.