The World’s Largest and Fastest-Moving Measles Epidemic Has Killed Nearly 5,000 People

 Ananchai Phuengchap/Shutterstock

Just out of the Western media's spotlight, nearly 5,000 people have died in a measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been 233,337 cases of measles and 4,723 deaths in the DRC over the past year, making it the world’s largest and fastest-moving measles epidemic. The huge majority of the affected people are kids, with children under the age of 5 accounting for almost 75 percent of infections and nearly 90 percent of deaths.

"The number of measles cases in DRC this year is more than triple the number recorded for all of 2018,” UNICEF said in a statement in October 2019.

To make matters even worse, the DRC is also faced with an Ebola outbreak that’s killed a further 2,193 people this year. 

Measles is a contagious viral disease that initially causes a runny nose, sneezing, and fever. Eventually, infected people will develop a distinctive blotchy rash that spreads across the body after first appearing on the face. Fortunately, it is preventable with the help of effective vaccinations.

However, the DRC and many other parts of the world suffer from a worryingly low vaccination rate. Statistics from 2017 to 2018 suggest the immunization rate during that period was just 57 percent. For perspective, vaccine coverage in the WHO European Region was 94 percent in 2008. The WHO argues that vaccination coverage of 95 percent of the population with two separate doses of a measles-containing vaccine is necessary to effectively prevent a mass outbreak.

Refugees cross from DRC into Uganda at the border village of Busanza in Kisoro district. Sam DCruz/Shutterstock

There are many factors behind the low vaccination rate in the DRC, however, one of the main driving forces is ongoing armed conflicts, which are making many parts of the country inaccessible and preventing authorities from carrying out vaccination campaigns, especially in the east of the country. It’s also left hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced, further adding to the situation.

Paired with this, the DRC has had a long-term problem with poor infrastructure and lack of healthcare access, which has only worsened with the current troubles. 

“We’re facing this alarming situation because millions of Congolese children miss out on routine immunization and lack access to health care when they fall sick,” explained Edouard Beigbeder, UNICEF representative in the DRC.

“On top of that, a weak health system, insecurity, community mistrust of vaccines and vaccinators and logistical challenges all contribute to a huge number of unvaccinated children at risk of contracting the disease.”

Help is on its way, however. UNICEF has supplied more than 8.6 million doses of measles vaccine for emergency outbreak responses along with 1,111 medical kits to health centers in hard-hit areas. While these efforts are most certainly welcomed, it's doubtful they will be enough to contain the storm. 

 

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