Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams are currently working with the Zambian health authorities to vaccinate almost 600,000 children against measles.
MSF launched an emergency intervention in response to an epidemic that has affected thousands of Zambian children this year, especially in the north of country.
Through the provision of training to Ministry of Health staff, technical assistance and medical material and vaccines, MSF is supporting the vaccination of children aged six months to 15 years against measles, a highly contagious disease.
The teams have begun work in both the Luapula and Northern Provinces, the two areas where children have been most affected by the epidemic: it has affected 3,043 children in Luapula and 4,670 in Northern Province so far this year.
The vaccination campaign began on 7th May 2011 and is expected to continue for around three weeks, until all the target population is vaccinated in eight districts of the Luapula and Northern Provinces. In the first 14 days alone, nearly 270,000 children had already been vaccinated.
Measles and HIV
Also in response to the epidemic, MSF has been working to treat patients who are already suffering from the disease. The main complications children are showing are pneumonia, dehydration and malnutrition.
Especially vulnerable to the complications that can be caused by measles are people living with HIV. There are almost one million people with the disease in Zambia.
Among the key messages that the MSF teams are spreading is the fact that HIV positive children run no risk from being vaccinated; in fact, they are all the more in need of being protected against the disease.
Tackling an epidemic
“As we have been working to mobilise the population of Zambia against measles for several weeks now, the response by the population has been overwhelmingly positive. Each day, thousands of children are being vaccinated,” said MSF emergency coordinator Federica Nogarotto.
The Zambian population’s response is a good sign, but it needs to be maintained through a sustained mobilisation campaign.
“It is extremely important that we reach our target. Our teams have to reach all the most remote villages where the access is very difficult or we risk a return of the epidemic next year,” added Nogarotto.
Vaccines for children
While some of the teams worked at health centers and churches, others worked at public schools, where children lined up for their vaccinations.
One man named Michael, who volunteered to register the names of children at one vaccination site in Kasama, told MSF staff that he lost his seven-year-old son to measles last year.
“My son died of pneumonia, which he contracted as a result of being affected by measles,” said Michael. “It is very important, this vaccination campaign. I hope that measles never returns to Zambia again. Measles can kill, and people need to know that.”
Over the coming days, the teams will be moving out of the town centres and into the rural areas, where access to healthcare is scarce. Among the areas where MSF staff will be deployed is Chilubi, a remote area that can only be accessed by boat.
Measles in Zambia
While Zambia suffered from a measles outbreak in 2003, a national vaccination campaign that targeted children up to 15 years old brought the number of patients down dramatically within a short period of time.
The number of cases has remained sporadic until 2010, which saw a resurgence of the disease, with a total of 15,000 people affected. In just four months in 2011, only in the provinces where MSF is working, around 10,000 cases have already been reported.
MSF has been working in Zambia since 2001, and has for the last eight years supported the effort to prevent and treat cholera, particularly in Lusaka. Last year MSF also assisted the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka with measles case management.
Meanwhile, MSF has also supported the Ministry of Health by providing services to people living with HIV. Last year, MSF launched a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programme in Luwingu, Northern Province, which includes a component of prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.
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