A nurse prepares a measles vaccine shot. Picture: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP
A nurse prepares a measles vaccine shot. Picture: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP

Kinshasa — Health authorities in the Democratic Republic of  Congo (DRC) have declared an epidemic of measles that may have killed 1,500 people, according to statistical analysis.

“We have been seeing an increase in the number of suspected cases of measles since the start of the year, with a total of 87,000 suspected cases” reported by mid-May, health minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga said. “Mortality is estimated at 1.8%,” he said.

This rate translates to about 1,500 deaths, the health ministry and aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) estimate.

The minister said medical teams have found cases of measles in 23 out of 26 provinces in the vast central African country. He announced a renewed, large-scale vaccination programme to try to counter the outbreak.

In April, 2.24-million children aged from six to 59 months were vaccinated over four days and another immunisation campaign covering 1.4-million children will be launched “in the coming days”, Kalenga said.

“Vaccination is the only public health intervention that is capable of putting an end to the measles epidemic,” he said. “To stop the chain of measles transmission and prevent future epidemics, at least 95% of the population” must be vaccinated, the minister said.

A nation the size of continental western Europe, the DRC is also struggling to contain an outbreak of deadly Ebola disease in two eastern provinces. A total of 1,384 lives have been lost since August 1, according to an official tally. 

US outbreak

Meanwhile Reuters reports that the US’s worst measles outbreak in a quarter-century has spread to Idaho and Virginia as public health authorities reported 41 new cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease this week.

The US has recorded 1,022 cases of the disease in 2019 as of June 6, in an outbreak blamed on misinformation about vaccines, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The 2019 outbreak, which has reached 28 states, is the worst since 1992, when 2,126 cases were recorded.

Federal health officials attribute 2019’s outbreak to US parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. These parents believe, contrary to scientific evidence, that ingredients in the vaccine can cause autism.

“We cannot say this enough: vaccines are a safe and highly effective public health tool that can prevent this disease and end the current outbreak,” health and human services secretary Alex Azar said.

Measles was declared eliminated in the US in 2000, meaning there was no continuous transmission of the disease for a year. Still, cases of the virus occur and spread via travellers coming from countries where measles is common.

Officials have warned that the country risks losing its measles elimination status if the outbreak, which began in October 2018 in New York, continues until October.