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UN: Ivory Coast Measles Outbreak Linked to Political Crisis

Health workers Wednesday begin vaccinating more than a half million children in Ivory Coast, after an outbreak of measles that the United Nations says is the result of disruption in health services caused by the country's ongoing political crisis.

Ivory Coast's health ministry has confirmed 47 cases of measles since the first of the year. Nearly 80 percent of those are children under the age of five, nearly all of whom were not properly vaccinated.

The U.N. children's agency says this outbreak is a direct result of the collapse of much of the healthcare system during the ongoing political crisis between Ivory Coast's rival governments.

"Health centers are obviously at great risk. A lot of health workers are not at their post because of fear of insecurity. And also there are many shortages of essential drugs throughout the country," said Louis Vigneault-Dubois, the UNICEF communications officer in Ivory Coast.

"The political crisis here has intensified the consequences on the population. We have to bear in mind that the people of Cote d'Ivoire were already made vulnerable by the continued fall-out of the political crisis that started actually in 2002 but that intensified since last December. So I think that the epidemics that we are starting to see now, we had yellow fever, cholera, and measles, are merely the tip of the iceberg of the humanitarian consequences that we could see in the coming weeks if the situation doesn't change," he said.

More than 35,000 Ivorians have fled the country since the disputed vote between incumbent president Laurent Gbabgo and the United-Nations-certified winner of the election, former prime minister Alassane Ouattara.

Another 40,000 people are displaced within the country, but there is no evidence that this measles outbreak has yet spread to displaced populations. For the moment, it is limited to the districts of Adiake and Aboisso.

Vigneault-Dubois says those districts near the commercial capital Abidjan are the target of this two-step vaccination program. "First is to do a rapid campaign to vaccinate as many kids as we can. So that means about half a million children under five will be vaccinated in the next week. But also it is important for us to make sure that we can mitigate the effects of the crisis on the health system and make sure that we can strengthen the routine vaccination throughout the country," he said.

UNICEF's nationwide immunization program has been disrupted by a breakdown in the "cold chain," temperature controlled supply links, necessary to preserve the quality of vaccines. "We want to make sure that we can restore the cold chain in the entire country. And as soon as this is fixed, we will be able to carry out the measles campaign nationwide, which will include, of course, displaced people," said Vigneault-Dubois.

Measles is a potentially-deadly infectious disease for children. The confirmed number of measles cases in Ivory Coast has grown steadily over the last three years from 22 cases in 2008 to 183 cases in 2009 to 433 cases in 2010.