Stopping the spread of measles during Kenya's worst drought in 40 years
The threat of a measles outbreak is greater during droughts as children suffering from malnutrition have weaker immune systems
On a sunny afternoon in Kangataruk Village in northern Kenya, a long line of mothers wait with young children, here to receive the measles vaccine. The mothers are calm but tired as they have been waiting for hours. Many are decorated with colourful bead chains of red, yellow, and green, wrapped around their necks in the Turkana tradition.
Standing at the front of the line is five-year-old Akenson Edung. As a health worker prepares the vaccine and reaches out for the child’s arm, he looks awfully unhappy. After feeling the pinch of the needle, he begins to cry. The health worker soothes his arm with cotton wool.
Next up is his three-year-old brother Etabu. Lucky for him, he's already in his mother's arms and is comforted immediately after he feels the injection.
The mother, Rebecca Lokaale, doesn't remember her age but looks roughly 28. She brought her two boys to get vaccinated, as well as receive packets of special therapeutic food for her firstborn, Akenson, who is suffering from severe malnutrition.
"This is the third time I have brought him to the outreach clinic after learning he was malnourished. He was losing weight and I felt helpless because I didn’t have enough food to feed him," says Rebecca.
Rebecca and her two boys are among 4.3 million families affected by drought in northern Kenya.
"Before the drought, we could at least get milk from the animals to drink. Now the animals are dying after walking long distances looking for water and pasture," she explains.
"Things are changing for the worse, you can sleep three days without eating, and there is nothing you can do. Life in these hard times is just accepting that sickness or death is near."
More than 800,000 children under five years old have been left food insecure because of the drought. Additionally, around 115,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women are suffering from malnutrition.
Francis Chemino Eloiloi, a nurse of eight years, leads the outreach clinic here in the village twice a month. He combines measles vaccinations with growth monitoring for children. He says the continuous migration of families fleeing the drought affected areas has led to malnourished children defaulting from treatment.
"This area has 600 children who are malnourished and receiving treatment. To make sure they all receive their measles vaccine, we mobilized families through churches, communication with chiefs and community health volunteers. The good thing is there was no resistance from parents,” Francis says.
In partnership with the Inter-religious Council of Kenya, the Ministry of Health, and the GAVI Vaccine Alliance, which provided funding, UNICEF helped conduct a 10-day measles campaign here for children between nine months and five years old.
UNICEF Kenya immunization specialist Collins Tabu says measles can be lethal, causes fever and a distinctive rash that starts on the face and spreads across the body.
“Some severe complications can include pneumonia, diarrhea, and blindness. It can make a child vulnerable to other infections long after recovering from the disease,” he says.
"Undoubtedly, the drought has made children vulnerable to contracting measles, not only due to poor nutrition which weakens their immunity, but also lack of access to safe water and sanitation. This is why we have amplified measles vaccination efforts to reach every child, especially in vulnerable communities."
Fortunately, Kangataruk village and the surrounding areas have not had any reported recent cases of measles. But parents like Rebecca are cautious anyway.
"I am aware there is a disease called measles out there. That's why I made sure my kids were vaccinated," the mother says. "They seem fine after getting their injection. I am happy they have been protected.”