The measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed more than 5,000 people since January – more than double the death toll for the country’s Ebola epidemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday. Kate O’Brien, the director of the WHO’s immunisation department, told reporters in Geneva: “The DRC [measles] outbreak is the largest worldwide. It is one of the largest that we have seen”. Mrs O’Brien added that epidemic had spread “all over the country,” noting that most of those affected were “children and babies”.
Congolese health officials declared the latest measles epidemic in June, and in September launched an emergency vaccination campaign in a bid to contain the outbreak.
As of November 17, the country had registered a total of 250,270 measles cases, including 5,110 deaths, the WHO said.
The WHO added that the inoculation campaign was still ongoing, but was expected to be over by the end of the year.
Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks mainly children.
It can lead to serious complications, including blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea and severe respiratory infections.
The swift spread of measles in Congo has received far less attention than the Ebola epidemic that has been thundering through the country’s violence-marred east since August 2018.
Congo’s Ebola outbreak is the second-biggest on record and has already killed more than 2,200 people.
It is surpassed only by the 2013-2016 epidemic in West Africa which involved over 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths and led to a race to find a vaccine.
Ebola, which is often fatal, is a viral disease that spreads through contact with bodily fluids, causing hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding.
Ian Norton, a member of the WHO’s Emergency Medical Team Unit, said the UN agency had started training Ebola teams in Congo to also treat measles patients, “because there is such a large burden”.
But efforts to limit the spread of both Ebola and measles are being hobbled by militia violence and unrest across the country, as well as widespread community mistrust of medical workers.
“The Ebola response is being hampered by the insecurity…the same can be said for the measles response,” Mr Norton told reporters.
The WHO is “extremely worried” by the growing insecurity, Mr Norton added, warning it was having a severe “impact on the management of disease”.
The WHO said on Tuesday it had moved 49 Ebola health workers out of the eastern town of Beni as violence in the area boiled over.
Attacks, even when not directed at medical staff or facilities, can prevent health workers from getting to work and force people who are feeling ill to stay at home instead of seeking treatment.