Katanga Measles Epidemic Keeps Worsening

September 01, 2015

LUBUMBASHI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, SEPT. 1, 2015—A growing measles epidemic in the province of Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo, has sickened more than 20,000 people and killed 300 people this year, according to official figures, while resources to combat the outbreak are still lacking, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today.

More than 20 of Katanga's 68 health districts are now affected—up from 10 districts in June—but the Congolese government has still not made an official declaration of the epidemic, which may have delayed a timely response.

"Every day we discover new deaths related to measles that have not been accounted for," said Augustin Ngoyi, MSF coordinator of the response. "In a village of 500 inhabitants two hours’ drive from Kabalo, more than 30 children under 5 years of age have died in the last two months. Their little graves are still visible in the cemetery. This represents one third of this age group in the community."

The United Nations finally announced on August 19 the disbursement of $2.4 million to help the government and humanitarian actors responding to the outbreak, but that money alone is not enough.

"We need more actors in the field," said Jean-Guy Vataux, MSF head of mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "MSF remains one of only two organizations in Katanga today involved in treating measles and immunizing children against it."

MSF teams are currently deployed in more than 10 health zones in Katanga, supporting local health authorities. During the last three months, MSF vaccinated more than 300,000 children and treated more than 20,000 measles-infected patients in five hospitals and approximately 100 health posts.

Measles is now almost endemic in the region and particularly dangerous for the very young who are already exposed to other pathologies such as malaria and acute malnutrition. The absence of free care in public health facilities discourages mothers from taking their sick children to be treated.

The main factor limiting the implementation of vaccination campaigns is the geography of Katanga, which makes it difficult to access some remote villages in the heart of the forest with a vaccine that must be kept cold along the way.

"The vaccine against measles is very effective but it is not well-suited to this type of environment," said Aurore Taconet, MSF vaccination referent in Paris. "It requires a thorough cold chain that is difficult to maintain in such conditions, and a second booster dose at least one month after the first. Such constraints mean huge needs in terms of equipment and human resources, and therefore a significant cost. "

Vaccination against measles and other diseases is normally part of the routine immunization performed in Congolese health centers. Catch-up campaigns to raise the proportion of vaccinated children are also organized every year. But many children seem to be missing out.

"An epidemic of this magnitude should not occur if the reported immunization coverage rates against measles in Katanga are accurate," said Dr. Michel Janssens, MSF medical coordinator on site.