Congo, Democratic Republic of the

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a rush to contain measles

WATCH: Fighting a measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

By Chiara Frisone

With a measles epidemic reaching emergency levels, UNICEF is working to help provide treatment and prevention as local health systems are pushed beyond their capacity.

KATANGA, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 2015 – A measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s southeast province of Katanga, with more than 47,000 suspected cases by the end of November, has killed more than 500 people. It is the worst epidemic since 2011, when around 134,000 cases of measles were recorded.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF DRC
“I'm here to raise awareness among families to vaccinate their children,” says Elestonie Mpanga Wabanza, a community worker in Butumba, one of the areas worst-hit by the measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Katanga has faced recurrent measles outbreaks over the years, but this one has health officials particularly concerned.

“The pace at which the current one is spreading is particularly worrying, as the number of Health Zones affected has climbed from only two at the end of last year to 24 in October this year,” says Ms. Magali Carpy Botoulou, Chief of UNICEF’s South Zone Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In addition, this year’s epidemic has a particularly high mortality rate – 1.1 per cent, which is over the 1 per cent threshold used to classify emergency situations.

Working around the clock

To support the Provincial Reponse Plan, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator released US$2.4 million, enabling UNICEF and the World Health Organization to start working to contain the epidemic, in partnership with Congolese Ministry of Public Health and several non-governmental organizations.

UNICEF’s partner in Butumba, one of the worst-hit Health Zones, is the Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA). The organization is working around the clock to treat children with measles, conduct a mass measles vaccination campaign and train community workers to identify and refer cases of measles.

“Our presence here is very important, because the Butumba Health Zone did not have the capacity to address the measles epidemic,” says Dr. Gabriel Tshiwisa Muhele, Project Coordinator with ALIMA.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF DRC
“Our presence here is very important, because the Butumba Health Zone did not have the capacity to address the measles epidemic,” says Dr. Gabriel Tshiwisa Muhele (centre), Project Coordinator with ALIMA.

ALIMA treats complex cases of measles at two 12-bed isolation units in Katala and Balongo, while simple cases are treated at the general hospitals, which ALIMA equipped with medical supplies. A referral system has also been put in place allowing serious cases of measles to be transported by motorbike to the nearest isolation unit.

Raising awareness

Community workers such as Elestonie Mpanga Wabanza are the heart of ALIMA’s work in Butumba. With a megaphone raised to her mouth, she starts walking the streets of Kibongo in the early hours of the morning.

“I'm here to raise awareness among families to vaccinate their children,” Elestonie says. Her role is to encourage mothers to take their children to the vaccination sites that will be set up later in the day all over Kibongo and neighbouring villages.

There are many reasons that could explain the current measles outbreak in Katanga. Cultural beliefs and traditional healthcare practices often get in the way of vaccinating children against measles and treating those with symptoms.

In addition, Ms. Botoulou mentions issues within the health system: “Inefficiencies in the way the Expanded Programme on Immunization [EPI] is managed, which results in low vaccination coverage; poor handling of the cold chain, which causes vaccines not to be stored properly; poor management of alerts and outbreaks, which results in delayed responses.”

These are all issues that will take time to address. For now, reaching as many children as possible with vaccinations and early detection and treatment of new cases are the most urgent priority for UNICEF and its partners.


 

 

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