SEATTLE, Washington — The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a country located in Central Africa. Reports of a measles outbreak in the DRC began in June 2019. All 26 regions of the country reported infections. The causes of this outbreak include extreme poverty and a lack of quality healthcare. The disease already infected upwards of 200,000 people and claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people. Sadly, 90 percent of these deaths have been children. The government and many NGOs are fighting this epidemic. Significant efforts have been made to distribute vaccines, especially to at-risk groups such as children. Along with this, some NGOs are taking steps in order to help prevent further epidemics from occurring.
The Severity of The Epidemic Is Due to Poverty
Since 2000, the presence of measles in the world has continuously decreased. From 2000 to 2016, global rates of measles have dropped by 84 percent. Unfortunately, this disease is still quite dangerous in parts of Africa and Asia due to a lack of income. More than 95 percent of “measles deaths occur in countries with low income per capita and weak health infrastructures.” The U.N. cites children living within poverty as those most at risk to contract the disease
Poverty and poor health infrastructure are both quite present throughout the DRC. As of 2018, 73 percent of the DRC’s population was living in extreme poverty. UNICEF cites the country’s lack of quality health services as one of the root causes of recurrent epidemics. Inadequate health services reduce the ability to provide vaccines. As a result, one out of every seven children in the DRC “dies of a vaccine-preventable disease before the age of five.” Although measles affects the entirety of the DRC, at-risk groups such as children have significantly higher rates of infection.
The high rates of infection among children throughout the DRC are mainly a result of a lack of vaccine administration. Children account for more than half the country’s population of 87 million. More than 40 percent of young children in the DRC still have not received vaccinations. These numbers are much lower in areas with higher rates of poverty like in rural parts of the country. Thankfully, NGOs within the DRC stepped up in terms of providing children with vaccinations in 2019.
Millions of Vaccines In 2019
Groups such as the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF have played key roles in the 8.6 million doses of measles vaccines that were distributed in 2019. This was possible thanks to campaigns such as UNICEF, leading the way in efforts to provide children with vaccines. In 2019, UNICEF provided 1.4 million children with vaccinations in areas that have been hit hardest by the measles epidemic.
The Ministry of Health and WHO have also made significant efforts to decrease measles outbreaks. These two groups have joined together to increase immunization by 15 percent within the DRC by 2020. The program hopes to provide 220,000 children with immunizations. NGOs within the DRC have provided significant numbers of vaccinations so far. However, In order to prevent future outbreaks from occurring, improving health clinic practices is key.
Gavi: Improving Healthcare in the DRC
A major issue when it comes to the distribution of vaccinations is the ability to store them in cold temperatures to avoid expiration. To help with this problem, the NGO Gavi has provided the DRC with solar-powered fridges. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in rural parts of the country and lacks access to basic forms of electricity. These solar-power fridges will function in any part of the country without a need for access to electricity.
Another key move made by Gavi is the creation of the new vaccine storage hub. The storage hub in Kinkole can properly provide storage for more than 200 million vaccine doses. This hub will act as storage for vaccines and medical supplies before distribution to health facilities. This facility even provides transportation for the supplies. There are 150 motor-powered canoes and boats delivering vaccines throughout the DRC. Providing products for transportation and storage is crucial to end the current measles outbreak in the DRC as well as future epidemics.
VillageReach: Improving Vaccination Rates
Another NGO making key changes to advance the country’s healthcare system is VillageReach. In 2016, VillageReach launched the Next Generation Supply Chain Initiative, aimed to improve health services within three regions of the DRC. This was mainly done through improvements to the transportation of vaccines and medical supplies.
Before the Next Generation Supply Chain Initiative began, health workers within these regions spent up to three days a month traveling to obtain vaccines. Instead of being present at health clinics and providing people with care, health workers had to attain medical supplies. VillageReach eliminates the wasted time with its cold-storage equipment for vaccinations. This led to a significant rise in the percent of dose increases within the regions selected for the initiative. The three regions were found to have a 22 percent increase in monthly vaccine doses, compared to the rest of the country’s increase of 4 percent.
VillageReach also succeeded in largely reducing the costs of healthcare. Since the initiative began in 2016, there has been a 34 percent decrease in supply chain costs. When attempting to combat an epidemic within a country where poverty is so prominent, efforts to lower costs are a big part of the battle. As these numbers show, Gavi and VillageReach have set great examples for how to improve the DRC’s healthcare. Through efficiency increases in transportation and storage of medical supplies, these NGOs were able to fight against the current measles outbreak in the DRC and possible future epidemics.
Since the most recent measles outbreaks in the DRC in 2019, NGOs within the nation have provided millions of doses of the measles vaccine. The government of the DRC must continue to work with NGOs in the future. Through improvements to the healthcare system, these groups have been able to fight against the current and future spread of harmful infections.
– James Turner