DR Congo declares measles epidemic as cases up 700 percent

Nearly 90,000 suspected cases of airborne infection recorded since January, health minister says.

A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at Boston Children''s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2015.
Measles is a highly contagious but preventable airborne infection [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Measles cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo jumped by more than 700 percent during the first four and a half months of 2019 compared with the same period last year, authorities have said, prompting warnings the epidemic could become the “deadliest of this decade” unless checked.

Medical teams had recorded 87,000 suspected cases by mid-May spread across all but three of the DRC’s 26 provinces, Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga said in a statement on Monday. 

Ilunga added the mortality rate was estimated to be at 1.8 percent, a figure which translates to more than 1,500 deaths.

“To stop the chain of measles transmission and prevent future epidemics, at least 95 percent of the population have to be vaccinated,” he said.

More than two million children were vaccinated in April, according to the health ministry, with another immunisation campaign covering a further 1.4 million others set to be launched “in the coming days”.

In a separate statement issued later on Monday, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials MSF) warned the epidemic could become the “deadliest of this decade” unless it was battled back.

“Given the magnitude of the epidemic, more resources and actors are required and ensuring a stable supply of vaccines against  (measles) is necessary as soon as possible,” said Rachel Seguin, MSF’s coordinator in the DRC.

Measles surges worldwide

Measles is a highly contagious airborne infection which causes cold-like symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing, as well as fevers and rashes. In rare cases, it can be deadly, but with the right vaccine, it is preventable.

Despite being widely considered to have been largely eradicated in several countries with advanced healthcare systems, including the United States, cases spiked dramatically at the start of this year. Figures by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed measles cases worldwide rose by 300 percent in the first quarter of 2019 compared with the same period last year.

Health experts have blamed the surge on a burgeoning global anti-vaccination movement and inadequate immunisation programmes.

Its apparent resurgence in the vast DRC, which is roughly equivalent to the size of continental Western Europe, comes as health workers there are already struggling to defeat a months-long outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the country’s eastern North Kivu and Ituri regions.

More than 2,000 cases, involving 1,357 deaths, have been recorded since the epidemic started in August.

Widespread insecurity in the region and deep community mistrust have hampered emergency responders’ efforts to contain the virus, with more than 100 attacks on treatment centres and health workers having been recorded since the beginning of this year, according to the WHO.

Last week, the agency warned one-quarter of all cases in the outbreak may be going undetected, with scores of victims dying without having been admitted to Ebola treatment centres.

Source: Al Jazeera