WHO launches measles emergency vaccination campaign in DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners today initiated a third emergency campaign of vaccinations to help battle the world’s largest and fastest-moving measles epidemic.

An MSF nurse vaccinates a young boy against measles during the vaccination campaign in Kweba village, Lungonzo district, DRC, May 2019.

As of September 17, more than 180-thousand suspected measles cases had been reported in 192 of the 519 health zones nationwide. Close to 4,000 people have died. That number is higher than the number of people killed in DR Congo’s Ebola outbreak. Nearly all the measles deaths have been children.

Every one of the country’s 26 provinces has reported cases of measles and is battling to control the outbreak.

“The DRC is experiencing a dire situation because too many children were missed by routine immunization,” said Dr. Deo Nshimirimana, WHO Representative to the DRC. “The country now has large clusters of children who need to be vaccinated – WHO and partners are working with the Health Ministry to move as quickly as possible to reach them.”

The WHO hopes to vaccinate nearly 1 million children aged 5 and under over the next nine days.

The effort will bring the total number of children reached through emergency vaccination campaigns to more than 4.1 million in at least 121 of the 192 affected health zones.

But even with the scale-up of vaccination efforts – which are not being used to prevent measles moving into new regions, but to try and stem the growing death toll – it is unlikely that the epidemic will end soon.

“I’m afraid that this epidemic will continue,” said Dr. Karel Janssens, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in DR Congo. “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 WHO has established a measles response advocacy committee to mobilise partners and donors in a joint effort to control the outbreak, and the United Nations Humanitarian Pooled Fund has given $2.5 million to the government’s emergency campaign.

The DRC’s Ministry of Health has also provided $843,000 to purchase vaccines.