American Red Cross Calls on Global Health Community to Fight Measles Outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo

April 5, 2011

Rising number of new cases putting thousands of children at risk.

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — With measles spreading rapidly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), putting thousands of children at risk, the American Red Cross today called on the Democratic Republic of Congo and members of the global health community to work together to launch an immediate response to the outbreaks.

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“In countries with weak health systems, vaccination campaigns need to be conducted every 2 to 4 years to reduce measles cases and deaths,” said Athalia Christie, senior technical advisor for the Measles Initiative with the American Red Cross. “If campaigns are postponed because of funding shortfalls, armed conflict or lack of political commitment, we will see outbreaks. It’s predictable but it’s also altogether preventable.”

A total of 16,112 suspected cases of measles have been reported since early 2011 with the death toll reaching 106 children – 90 of whom are in Katanga province, according to the latest figures provided by local health authorities.

The Red Cross has joined Medecins Sans Frontieres’ (MSF) efforts to rapidly vaccinate more than 1.5 million children in response to the current crisis.

“Every year, thousands of children suffer from measles,” said Christie, with the American Red Cross. “Outbreaks are reported every day. Hospitals beds are full. Mothers delay naming their newborns until they have survived the disease. What’s even more tragic is that we have a safe and effective vaccine available that will not only protect them from this disease, but will contribute to the prosperity of entire generations.”

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is as large as all of Western Europe. Following years of armed conflict and crumbling health infrastructure, thousands of children are vulnerable to measles.

Vast differences exist in access to healthcare between rural villages and urban cities – an inequity that fuels the spread of measles. Countries with weak health systems use campaigns to reach those with otherwise poor access to health services. Measles campaigns also strengthen routine immunization by retraining healthcare workers, supplying equipment to safely transport vaccines and developing strategies to access hard-to-reach populations.

“The success of measles vaccination campaigns depends largely on spreading the word to communities,” said Dr. Alain Kapete, from the Red Cross of the DRC. “Red Cross volunteers make door-to-door visits to ensure all children, especially those in remote villages, are included in the immunization campaign. We need to vaccinate as many children as possible to prevent the spread of the virus.”

In October and November 2010, the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo mobilized 1,000 volunteers for vaccination campaigns against wild polio virus. These campaigns also integrated measles vaccine in certain districts. Additionally, the local Red Cross society has ongoing activities to strengthen routine immunization in 65 zones as part of a civil society consortium receiving funding from the GAVI Alliance.

The Measles Initiative has successfully contributed to a 92 percent reduction of measles mortality in Africa between 2000 and 2008. Unfortunately, with declines in political and financial commitments for this highly effective partnership, future vaccination campaigns against measles are being compromised and immunization remains an unfinished business.

In 2010, 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa reported measles outbreaks with more than 1,200 deaths linked to measles.

Measles is a highly contagious virus, spread by contact with an infected person through coughing and sneezing, affecting mostly children. The symptoms include high fever, severe skin rash and cough and can cause complications such as pneumonia, malnutrition, severe dehydration, ear and eye infections that can lead to blindness. Measles kills an estimated 164,000 children each year, according to the Measles Initiative.

Launched in 2001, the Measles Initiative–led by the American Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Health Organization–provides technical and financial support to governments and communities for mass vaccination campaigns and disease surveillance around the world. The Initiative has supported the vaccination of more than 700 million children, helping to reduce measles deaths by 78 percent globally (compared to 2000). To learn more, visit www.measlesinitiative.org.

To learn more you can read the full advocacy report by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) which was produced in partnership with the GAVI Alliance.

About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation’s blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.

SOURCE American Red Cross

Source: newswire

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