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Away from coronavirus, DR Congo battles deadly measles outbreak

Last year, more than 18 million children under the age of five were vaccinated for measles across DR Congo and around 310,000 suspected cases were reported.

FILE: A 3D graphical representation of a spherical-shaped measles virus particle. Picture: CDC Public Health Image Library.

SEKE-BANZA - As the world grapples with the spread of novel coronavirus, in remote western DR Congo, officials are fighting a deadly outbreak of measles.

More than 6,000 people have died from measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a year, the world's worst outbreak and triple the toll of the country's Ebola epidemic. It is also nearly double the 3,404 people who have died from the coronavirus so far.

Last year, more than 18 million children under the age of five were vaccinated for measles across DR Congo and around 310,000 suspected cases were reported.

The UN agency World Health Organisation had said more emergency funds were needed from donors for a six-month immunisation plan for children to help curb the epidemic.

A second stage of vaccinations just started this week. Vaccines are loaded onto motorbikes in the villages around Temba, a six-hour drive along dirt roads from the western community of Seke-Banza.

Around 73,000 children from six months to 15 years old will be vaccinated in the Kongo Central province as part of the second phase.

Efforts to halt the spread of both Ebola and measles in DR Congo are hampered by a lack of access, weak health care and unrest across the country, especially in the east.

Several hours into the remote bush by motorbike from the regional capital of Matadi in western DR Congo, measles has killed six people in Seke-Banza, a small part of this forgotten epidemic.

The latest victim was a small boy who died during the week in hospital.

"There are two categories of patients: those who are in the acute phase of measles, with respiratory signs, conjunctivitis, fevers," says Mederic Monier with Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

"A few months later, as their immune system is weak, they can trigger other diseases like malaria so we also take care of them."

Adolphe Kiakupuati, a hunter like most men in the region, came with his three children for a vaccination. Lack of information is a problem in this area in the middle of the forest, on the borders of the two Congos.

"During the vaccination period for the children, I was busy in the forest and I was not aware of it. But now they are on treatment," the father said.

Logistics are a major challenge, especially trying to keep vaccines at the required temperature as they are transported.

"The big challenge is to be able to supply all of these vaccines in all of these villages, while respecting quality," says MSF logistics manager Jean Pletinckx.

The DRC recorded more than 335,413 suspected cases and 6,362 deaths from 1 January 2019 to February 20, 2020, according to WHO statistics.

Measles has killed more than the Ebola epidemic declared on 1 August 2018 in the east of the country, which has caused 2,264 deaths.

Measles is a highly-contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections.