The Measles Epidemic in Africa in the Age of COVID-19

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SEATTLE, Washington — As of April 2020, an estimated 117 million children around the world are at risk of missing out on a measles vaccine. The majority of foreign aid is being redirected toward COVID-19 efforts. As a result, vaccines and medical tools used to stave off other diseases have become increasingly scarce.

Because of this, Africa’s measles epidemic is now spiking at alarming levels. Furthermore, the continent faces a financing gap in healthcare funding of US $66 billion that leaves facilities understaffed, underfunded and ill-equipped to handle disease outbreaks. With the coronavirus pandemic, the situation has become even worse.

Major Outbreaks in the DRC, Ethiopia and Somalia

In early 2020, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) experienced its deadliest measles epidemic in recorded history, with more than 6,000 dead. Caught between the overshadowing of Ebola and COVID-19, the DRC’s medical systems are too underfunded and understaffed to adequately respond.

Although treating and controlling COVID-19 is vital to public health, as Emmanuel Lampaert, a Doctors Without Borders regional coordinator, says, “unfortunately, these measures are having an impact on the overall measles response, including transporting vaccines, assembling dedicated teams and launching vaccination campaigns.”

Neighboring countries, including Chad and the Central African Republic, also reported measles cases but did not declare states of emergency.

Measles is also spiking in the Eastern horn of Africa, with Ethiopia declaring a measles outbreak in January 2020. In the span of one month, the country had recorded more than 700 cases. The coronavirus pandemic was not far behind. Medical resources are now in short supply as hospitals struggle to treat the two diseases simultaneously. Other factors, such as the country’s high rates of acute malnutrition and poor sanitation services, affect Ethiopia’s overall health. These factors have thereby made the population more vulnerable to communicable diseases like measles and COVID-19.

Next to Ethiopia, Somalia also faces a measles outbreak, now compounded by the effects of COVID-19. As with Ethiopia, years of drought have left Somalia in a state of food insecurity, compromising the health of many citizens and increasing the population’s vulnerability to diseases.

Medical Assistance and Humanitarian Relief

The DRC, Ethiopia and Somalia are each unequipped to handle a measles epidemic alone, let alone COVID-19. However, humanitarian organizations have worked hard to bolster treatment facilities and vaccination programs against the disease. In the DRC, Doctors Without Borders has vaccinated 260,000 children and treated 17,500 people in 2020. Similarly, in 2019, UNICEF supplied local clinics with 1,111 measles treatment kits — enough to care for 111,000 people.

In Ethiopia, where the outbreak remains in the East Wollega zone, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reached out to 15,000 people as part of a measles awareness campaign. They spoke with individuals about measles transmission and rehabilitating hospitals and sanitation systems to prevent transmission in the first place. When asked about the effects of the organization’s work, Rashal, a mother in the region, told volunteers, “I was so happy to see doctors and IOM staff members at the Adare health centre treating patients coming in. Now, my child is saved.”

In response to Somalia’s measles outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) implemented retraining programs for health workers to strengthen the quality of treatment services. Additionally, UNICEF vaccinated 54,000 children for measles in 2016 and donated vitamin A supplements to boost disease immunity.

It is clear that medical resources and funding in Africa in the age of COVID-19 are running scarce. Other diseases, therefore, have room to take hold. However, by way of humanitarian aid, vital medical supplies can become available and fill the gaps in government healthcare systems.

Jane Dangel
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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