Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at risk from killer measles, cholera epidemics

COVID-19 latest challenge facing battered health services

31 March 2020
Two boys in Loda IDP camp in Djugu territory, Ituri province.
Two boys in Loda IDP camp in Djugu territory, Ituri province.

KINSHASA/GENEVA/NEW YORK, 31 March 2020 - The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s battered healthcare system needs urgent support as it struggles with measles and cholera epidemics that kill thousands of children, as well as the mounting threat from the coronavirus, COVID-19, says UNICEF.

In a report released today*, the UN children’s agency says that ongoing efforts to contain an Ebola outbreak in the east of the country have diverted attention and resources from already enfeebled healthcare facilities which are dealing with several deadly endemic diseases.

Since early 2019, a measles epidemic – the worst in the world -- has killed more than 5,300 children under the age of five, while there have been some 31,000 cases of cholera. Now, cases of the coronavirus, COVID-19, are increasing fast, posing a major challenge to a country identified as one of the most at risk in Africa.

Yet in public health centres, equipment, trained staff and funds are in desperately short supply. Many facilities even lack safe water and sanitation. Immunization rates that were already low have dropped sharply in some provinces over the past year.

An estimated 3.3 million children in the DRC have unmet vital health needs, while across the country, 9.1 million children (nearly one in five of the under-18 population) require humanitarian assistance.

Many of the most vulnerable children live in three conflict-affected eastern provinces impacted by the Ebola outbreak. Brutal militia violence – including attacks targeting health centres -- forced nearly a million people from their homes in 2019 alone, making it even harder for children to access essential medical care.

Malaria, measles, and cholera epidemics are a lethal threat in every part of the country. Remote rural communities are particularly vulnerable. The report says:

  • Around 16.5 million malaria cases were reported in 2019, causing nearly 17,000 deaths. Children under the age of 5 are most severely affected by the disease.
  • Measles cases surged in 2019-20, to reach 332,000 nationwide, making it the worst outbreak in the DRC’s history. Out of more than 6,200 recorded fatalities, around 85 per cent were children under the age of five.
  • Cholera is endemic, the consequence of poor sanitation and the dirty water that many families rely on for drinking and washing. Cholera killed around 540 people in 2019. Children make up about 45 per cent of cases.

“Strengthening the DRC’s basic healthcare system is absolutely vital,” said UNICEF DRC Representative Edouard Beigbeder.

“Unless health facilities have the means to deliver immunization, nutrition and other essential services, including in remote areas of the country, we risk seeing the lives and futures of many Congolese children scarred or destroyed by preventable diseases.”

In the report, UNICEF calls on the Government to allocate more of its budget for vital health care services supporting pregnant women, new-born and young children, and to prioritise the strengthening of routine immunization.

The agency urges international donors to commit generous multi-year support to the government’s efforts to revamp routine health care services and to reach its SDG goals in water, sanitation and hygiene in order to better protect children against communicable diseases.

Media contacts

Jean Jacques Simon
UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Office
Christopher Tidey
Tel: +1 917 340 3017

Additional resources

This newborn baby just received her birth certificate at the hospital of Sibiti, in the South of Congo
This newborn baby just received her birth certificate at the hospital of Sibiti, in the South of Congo


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