- Title: In the shadow of Ebola and Covid-19, measles rips through Congo
- Date: 23rd March 2020
- Summary: TEMPERATURE LOG FROM COOL-BOX IS PLUGGED INTO A COMPUTER MSF (MÃ‰DECINS SANS FRONTIÃˆRES) WORKERS CHECK TEMPERATURE OF COOL-BOXES DURING THE TRANSPORTATION COMPUTER SCREEN SHOWING GRAPH OF VIALS MAINTAINED TEMPERATURE BETWEEN 2-9 DEGREES CELSIUS
- Keywords: Congolese DRC Doctors without Borders MSF Measles Medecins Sans Frontieres Vaccination children
- Reuters ID: LVA002C69V9SN
- Location: BUSU-MANDJI, MONGALA PROVINCE, DRC
- City: BUSU-MANDJI, MONGALA PROVINCE, DRC
- Country: Congo, Democratic Republic of the
- Duration: 00:00:16
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Topics: Health/Medicine
- Story Text: Three-year-old Dobo Mambanza's face is blistered and scrunched as she struggles for breath, her eyes shuttered and weeping. Dobo is going blind.
Cradled by her mother, Dobo lies in the ward of a health centre in a remote village in northern Democratic Republic of Congo where doctors work frantically to contain a deadly virus.
Dobo does not have Ebola or COVID-19. She has measles, a preventable but extremely contagious disease that since Jan. 2019 has ripped through Congo and continues to spread in remote regions unchecked. Some 6,400 people have died, according to official figures, but that number is likely much higher because reporting rates are so low, healthcare workers say.
"I will always be blamed, it will always be my mistake, but when he started suffering with this illness I wasn't there and no one told me anything when I got back," Dobo's mother Wanea Mabele said above the sound of her writhing child's rattling breath.
Wanea is hardly to blame. Underfunded and delayed government vaccination drives in the giant Central African nation have left millions of hard-to-reach children vulnerable. Dud vaccines have left thousands of others at risk without knowing, local and international health workers say.
"The actual mortality rate might be much higher, up to four or five times higher than what we see in official numbers because there's a lot of health structures that are not functioning properly and so there's a lot of community deaths that are not reflected in some of the official reports," said Karel Janseens, who heads Doctors Without Borders in Congo.
Complicating matters, authorities have funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars and manpower into a 19-month Ebola outbreak in the east that has killed over 2,000 people, weakening efforts to contain measles, health officials say. Ebola is finally on the wane, but COVID-19, the first case of which was reported in the capital Kinshasa this month, threatens to steal the limelight indefinitely.
The World Heath Organization (WHO) says they are worried resources mobilisation for measles will be challenged as a result of COVID-19.
The impact could be devastating. Measles is on the rise globally, but Congo is worst hit. The disease, contracted when a carrier coughs or sneezes, carries the risk of complications including brain damage, blindness and deafness.
Dobo's ward sits among the palm and mango trees of Busu-Mandji, a dilapidated old colonial town deep in the jungle, 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from Kinshasa. The nearest paved road is 125 km south in the city of Lisala.
Keeping vaccines refrigerated for the duration of the journey from the capital is vital, but tricky. On a recent vaccination campaign, medical charity MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res (MSF) flew 2,700 vaccine vials to Lisala in large cool boxes fitted with digital thermometers to ensure the temperature remains between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius in the equatorial heat.
In Lisala, the boxes were lashed to the back of a dozen motorbikes for a ten-hour ride along bamboo-thronged dirt tracks and precarious log bridges too pitted for 4X4 vehicles.
During the 10-hour ride to Busu-Mandji, the convoy was halted by three flat tyres, engine trouble and a broken chain. MSF workers said the vaccines remained in the right temperature range.
Congo's government has year-round vaccination campaigns, but there was no emergency response targeting high risk areas until an October-December 2019 campaign. When the government vaccines did finally come, health workers say some may have overheated.
High levels of malnutrition and poorly trained health workers make the vaccine, which normally works around 85% of the time, even less effective.
The health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
"It's evident, it's true that all the attention, when we had Ebola, all the attention was focused on Ebola whilst we were already in an epidemic situation (with measles) since June 2019, yet the (medical) intervention only arrived in February 2020," said Mushadi Gidion, a local official from the heath ministry.
Parents like Pauline Mbuni Nzinga who live in villages near Busu-Mandji say her nine children were vaccinated against measles in the government vaccination campaign in December, but that they subsequently contracted measles. One of them died.
It is unclear why the vaccines failed.
Official statistics suggest that 100% of children have been vaccinated in the area.
But that calculation is based on 1984 census data: health workers have no idea how many children actually need vaccinating, and there is no data on the effectiveness of the vaccine after it is administered in this setting.
(Production: Hereward Holland, Yvonne Bell)
- Copyright Holder: REUTERS
- Copyright Notice: (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2020. Open For Restrictions - http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp
- Embargoed:6th April 2020 11:00
- Usage Terms/Restrictions: Footage contains computer game or software screenshots. User is responsible for obtaining additional clearances before publishing this clip.