Measles vaccination begins in Ebola-hit Congo amid fears of ‘massive loss of life’

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Health workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have launched an urgent measles vaccination campaign in Ebola-hit regions, after almost 2,000 deaths from the preventable disease, two-thirds of them among children under five. At least 1,981 people died from measles in DRC this year, surpassing the 1,641 deaths from Ebola, according to the UN children’s agency, Unicef. The “unprecedented” humanitarian crisis is putting the health system under strain, UN staff said. “The combined threat of Ebola and measles for the thousands of families living in overcrowded and unsanitary displacement camps is unprecedented,” said Edouard Beigbeder, a Unicef DRC spokesman. “We have a small window to prevent a potentially massive loss of life.” Nearly 115,000 cases of suspected measles have been reported for the six months to 23 June, almost double the number recorded for the whole of 2018. “Cases of measles have accelerated in Ituri in the past year, mainly due to fighting and mass displacement,” said Jerome Pfaffman, a Unicef health specialist based in Bunia, a town in the north-east province. “People go into camps, which are overcrowded and unsanitary. With the Ebola outbreak, it puts the health system under a strain and poses a major challenge for government, health officials and partners.” The measles vaccination campaign is targeting 67,000 children in Ituri, which is at the centre of the second deadliest Ebola outbreak on record. As of 8 July, there were 2,428 cases of Ebola, roughly 30% of which were among children. Fighting has escalated in Ituri, with a massive influx of families forcibly displaced by conflict in recent weeks. An estimated 400,000 people have been displaced, the vast majority women and children. Pfaffman said an additional 250 specially-trained staff have been mobilised to tackle the outbreak in Bunia. Extra measures were needed to protect workers and patients from Ebola and to screen for it, he said. “You have to have additional protection for frontline workers, to protect against infection, and you have to have meticulous triage,” said Pfaffman. The rollout of the programme will be further complicated because some of the early symptoms of Ebola, including fever, redness around the eyes and diarrhoea, are virtually indistinguishable from those of measles, malaria and cholera, all of which are common in camps. The first sites to be targeted for the programme are four displacement camps in Bunia. The boundary of one of the camps is less than 100 metres away from an Ebola treatment centre and less than 3km from parts of Bunia where there have been five Ebola cases since the outbreak began, two of them in the past three weeks. Measles campaigns are also being planned for Tchomia and Nyankunde health zones.