Nearly a million children are being targeted for vaccination against measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The disease has killed 3,667 people, mostly children, and infected close to 184,000 already since January.

The ongoing measles epidemic, worse than the Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC, is the country’s deadliest for more than a decade. According to reports, it is spreading like wildfire and is regarded as the fastest-growing measles outbreak in the world.

“Measles is everywhere – every province of the country has cases,” Head of Mission for MSF in the DRC, Dr. Karel Janssens, told The Telegraph. “This is a very lethal epidemic.”

In response to the devastating epidemic, the DRC government on Wednesday initiated the third mass-vaccination campaign, with help from the World Health Organization (WHO), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders) and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).

The latest vaccination campaign is expected to run for nine days. It has a target of reaching around 825,000 children under five years of age in 24 of the country’s 26 provinces. According to the WHO, this would take the total number of children vaccinated through emergency campaigns to 4.1 million.

Global measles surge

Measles is a highly contagious airborne disease mainly found in children. The virus causes cold-like symptoms such as coughing and sneezing, as well as fevers and rashes. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhea, and severe respiratory infections, and in rare cases, it can be deadly.  Measles is preventable with the right vaccine.

This year has seen a dramatic spike in the cases of measles across the globe. Figures by the WHO show that measles cases worldwide rose by 300 percent in the first quarter of 2019 compared with the same period last year. In Africa alone, there has been a 900 percent increase in infections compared to 2018.

Experts blame the surge on the rising global anti-vaccination movement, inadequate immunization programs and a lack of access to crucial health care. A combination of these factors has left hundreds of thousands of people vulnerable to measles.

But in the DRC, which is home to 81 million people (40 percent of whom are under the age of 14), low vaccination rates contribute largely to the skyrocketing number of measles cases. Last year, routine immunization coverage was just 57 percent, significantly lower than the 95 percent coverage necessary to achieve herd immunity according to the WHO.

“The DR Congo is facing this situation because a lot of children don’t get routine vaccinations,” WHO Representative in the DRC, Dr. Deo Nshimirimana, said in a statement. “The country now has large clusters of children who need to be vaccinated.”

The official added that the WHO and partners are working with the DRC’s health ministry to move as quickly as possible to reach those in need of vaccinations. The global health agency has established a measles response advocacy committee to mobilize partners and donors in a joint effort to control the outbreak.

Furthermore, the UN Humanitarian Pooled Fund has given $2.5 million to the government’s emergency campaign while the DRC’s Ministry of Health has also provided $843,000 to purchase vaccines.

But even with the scale-up of vaccination efforts, it is unlikely that the epidemic will end soon. This is because the response is aimed at stemming the growing death toll rather than preventing measles from moving into new regions.

“I’m afraid that this epidemic will continue,” Janssens added. “And as much as it is important to respond now to the current epidemic, of course, it’s key to start thinking beyond this about how to avoid [a situation in which] every couple of years we end up with such a deadly epidemic.”

The measles resurgence in the DRC comes as the country struggles to defeat a year-long deadly outbreak of Ebola virus in its eastern regions. More than 3,000 cases, involving over 2000 deaths, have been recorded since the epidemic started in August 2018.

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