Using Vaccines to Fight Measles in Democratic Republic of Congo

    26 March 2020

    The face of Dobo Mambanza is blistered as she fights to breathe. The little girl is crying and, slowly, going blind.

    Her mother holds three-year-old Dobo in her arms at a health center in northern Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, doctors are working hard to contain a deadly virus.

    Three-year-old Eme Mbisa, who has a measles infection, rests her hand on the shoulder of her mother, Marianne Mbisa, as she talks to a doctor in northern Democratic Republic of Congo February 29 , 2020. (REUTERS/Hereward Holland)
    Three-year-old Eme Mbisa, who has a measles infection, rests her hand on the shoulder of her mother, Marianne Mbisa, as she talks to a doctor in northern Democratic Republic of Congo February 29 , 2020. (REUTERS/Hereward Holland)

    Dobo does not have the new coronavirus or Ebola virus disease. She has measles. This preventable but extremely infectious disease has moved quickly through the country since early 2019.

    Measles has killed about 6,400 people, official reports show, but healthcare workers say the number is much higher. Reporting rates are very low.

    Dobo's mother Wanea Mabele spoke to the Reuters news agency. She said, "I feel guilty because I'm afraid people might say it's because I didn't get my daughter treatment quickly."

    Mabele is hardly to blame. Congo's government has delayed vaccine campaigns because of a lack of money. That has left millions of children without protection for measles.

    Health workers say there is also a problem with poor quality vaccines, leaving thousands at risk in a country of 81 million people.

    Coronavirus, Ebola redirect attention

    Health officials have sent hundreds of millions of dollars and workers to eastern Congo to fight a 19-month outbreak of Ebola. That disease has killed over 2,000 people. The number of new cases is finally decreasing, just as COVID-19, the disease from the new coronavirus, arrives.

    After a first coronavirus case in the capital Kinshasa this month, reported infections rose to 18 by last weekend.

    "Priority will be given to COVID-19 in the coming weeks or months depending on the trend of the disease," said Vincent Sodjinou. He leads the anti-measles effort in Congo for the World Heath Organization (WHO).

    Measles is on the rise around the world, but Congo is worst hit. Measles is caused by a virus. It can pass from one person to another when the carrier coughs or sneezes. The disease carries risks of brain damage, blindness and deafness.

    The hospital where Dobo is being treated lies deep in the forest. The nearest paved road is 125 kilometers to the south, in the city of Lisala.

    Keeping vaccines cool for the trip from Kinshasa is important, but difficult. On a recent vaccination campaign, medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF, flew 2,700 containers to Lisala in large, cool boxes.

    In Lisala, the boxes were tied to the back of motorbikes for the 10-hour trip to the hospital. MSF workers said the vaccines remained at the correct temperature for the ride.

    Helping the children

    Congo's government has year-long vaccination campaigns, but they did not target high risk areas until October 2019. When the government vaccines finally did come, health workers say some may have overheated.

    Official reports suggest 100 percent of children have been vaccinated in the area, said Mushadi Gidion, a local official from the health ministry.

    But that number comes from a population count in 1984. Health workers do not know how many children need the vaccination.

    Measles vaccines normally have an effectiveness rate of 85 percent. But the vaccines are less effective in children who do not have a good, healthy diet. Poorly-trained health workers also can reduce their effectiveness.

    "There can be many causes that can lead to the epidemic," Mushadi said. "Perhaps our vaccination campaign was not of high quality."

    I'm Jill Robbins.

    The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    blister - n. area of the skin covered by a bubble of liquid

    outbreak - n. the sudden appearance of disease

    priority - n. the thing that is most important

    trend - n. the direction something is going or hanging to

    motorbike - n. a two-wheeled motorized vehicle

    pave - v. to cover dirt with a solid material

    deafness - n. to be unable to hear

    cough - n. releasing irritation in the throat

    sneeze - n. expelling air from the nose