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DR CONGO: Measles Claims Lives as Public, Private Resources Stretched Thin

Emmanuel Chaco

KINSHASA, May 18 2011 (IPS) - More than 3,000 cases of measles have been recorded in the past three months in two districts of Maniema Province, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Provincial statistics seen by IPS for the districts of Kibombo and Kindu, show that since mid-April, a measles epidemic has caused more than 15 deaths at health facilities, and three or four times as many have died at home, in cases where families did not take stricken children to medical centres.

“The villages further upstream along the Congo River are the worst affected by measles,” says Dr Théo Katako, interim head of the Provincial Inspectorate of the Ministry of Public Health. “Meanwhile, the province was only able to organise a vaccination campaign against polio, for lack of resources to take on these two epidemics at once.”

“The total number dying of measles at home in April, could have been more than 60; for lack of a way for these families to bring these patients to the hospital because of the distance to health facilities,” says Germain Musombo, a member of civil society in Maniema.

“The fear is even greater because the measles vaccination campaign, planned for last week, did not take place for reasons no one has explained,” says Julie Bibi Bin Kito, a small trader and mother of a six-year-old who died of measles last week. “We who don’t have money would have benefited from these vaccinations to protect the lives of our children.”

She told IPS it would take more than four hours to walk to the nearest hospital to her home. She has no access to a car, and that hospital requires patients to pay to open a medical file before they can receive care. Neither she nor her husband had any money on the evening their child died.

Dying of poverty

“The question of poverty is critical throughout the province of Maniema,” says Musombo. “A large majority of the population lives on rice and cassava leaves grown in small gardens near the family home. There is also the fact that the province is landlocked and doesn’t benefit from commerce with the rest of the country.”

The province is generally underdeveloped, with few people enjoying access to clean drinking water and just 52,000 of the provinces’ estimated population of two million having access to electricity.

“With the population living under these conditions, there is cause for concern,” says Martin Bila Omari, who is responsible for epidemiology at the provincial inspectorate of the health ministry.

“The provincial authorities have outlined a plan to end the epidemic and prevent new cases,” says Bila Omari, “which will cost 180,000 dollars. But there is an acute shortage of financial resources to carry it out. The modest provincial budget will not allow for an urgent response.”

For the moment, the authorities are trying to raise awareness. “Several weeks ago, the government launched and awareness campaign for the population, and families in particular, on the necessity of vaccinations for children between six and 59 months and urging them to bring children in from time to time for their routine vaccinations,” Dr Benoît Kebela Ilunga, director of the campaign against measles at the national health ministry, told IPS.

He said the government has also strengthened monitoring of new cases with a view to arresting the present outbreak of measles.

“Happily the province is benefiting from the support of UNICEF [the United Nations Children’s Fund] and other international humanitarian organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières – France,” says Bila Omari, adding that a measles vaccination campaign could be organised almost immediately as these partners already have the necessary vaccines in hand.

While the province of Maniema struggles with epidemics of measles and polio, non-governmental organisations warn of 80 cases of measles in the territory of Bukama, in Katanga province, in the southeast of the DRC.

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