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Measles in Congo kills thousands of children: Doctors Without Borders

Last Updated May 24, 2020 at 8:59 am PDT

(iStock Photo)

According to Doctors Without Borders, 6,600 children have died of measles since January of 2019

The agency fears the measles outbreak will be put on the backburner, in efforts to curb COVID spread

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The COVID pandemic is making it extremely difficult to address a more deadly situation in Congo.

Thousands of children have died in Congo since a measles outbreak was identified two years ago. According to Doctors Without Borders, 6,600 children have died since January of 2019.

At the best of times, it’s a challenge to get infants inoculated in a country wracked with poverty, poor roads and violence.

“Just getting the vaccinations – they’ve got a weak health care system, you’ve got fighting and insecurity, you’ve got logistical challenges and on their roads you’ve got to use motorcycles,” says Joe Belliveau who is the executive director of the organization’s Canadian chapter.

And an Ebola outbreak in 2018 added another layer of adversity. It meant partners who were supporting vaccination campaigns were turning their focus to the Ebola crisis.

Just as the Ebola crisis was dying down, the COVID catastrophe grew.

“That means we have to take measures to prevent the spread of COVID. So it’s even more challenging and more limiting to get the teams to where they need to be,” Belliveau says.

Doctors Without Borders now fear the fight against measles will be put on the backburner as the pandemic starts to hit the region as it was beginning to make inroads in reducing the spread of extremely infectious disease.

“They can’t just have a one-track focus because other diseases are going to catch up to us and they are going to have a major and deadly effect,” says Belliveau. “Right now that’s the point with the measles which is, in Congo, is killing far more people than COVID,” Belliveau says.

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases on the planet and can live in an airspace for hours. Fifty-thousand cases have been identified since January.

Despite the challenges, Doctors without Borders has managed to vaccinate 260,000 children since the beginning of the year, and has treated another 17,000 kids.

He says when villagers see the doctors coming, they get a big welcome. He describes a scenario a couple of months ago in one of the country’s northern provinces.

“My colleagues had to get a bunch of motorcycles and had to endure a six-hour drive on sandy track. And when they arrived they were literally cheered by the local community.”

Unlike with COVID, children under five are the most susceptible. He says even if they survive, the children who develop rashes can get eye infections, sometimes so severely they become blind. They can also be left with respiratory complications and a weakened immune system.

As far as the COVID situation in that country stands, Belliveau points out testing is extremely limited. Only the capital city, Kinshasa, has testing capacity.