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UN Works to Contain Disease Epidemics in Two African Countries

  • Lisa Schlein

A child from the Central African Republic receives a measles vaccine in a refugee camp set up by the UNHCR in Nangungue, eastern Cameroon, April 12, 2013.

A child from the Central African Republic receives a measles vaccine in a refugee camp set up by the UNHCR in Nangungue, eastern Cameroon, April 12, 2013.

United Nations agencies are mounting emergency operations to contain an epidemic of measles in the Central African Republic and of cholera in Niger.

The recent rebellion against the former regime of Francois Bozize in the Central African Republic [CAR] is taking a heavy toll on children. Last month, eight children tested positive for measles in the capital, Bangui, raising alarm at the possibility of the spread of this killer disease.

The U.N. Children’s Fund says months of extreme violence and the collapse of law and order in the country has led to a breakdown of basic services, and it has increased the risk of disease outbreaks in the Central African Republic.

Children at risk

Even before the country became engulfed in fighting, only 62 percent of CAR’s children were vaccinated for measles. UNICEF spokeswoman, Marixie Mercado said this low vaccination rate, along with poor living conditions, is putting the lives of large numbers of children at risk of disease.

She said UNICEF, its partners, and the CAR Ministry of Health are aiming to reach and protect 125,000 children from measles during the emergency vaccination campaign this week in Bangui.

“The campaign represents an important first step in efforts by the Ministry of Health and Partners to re-establish measles immunization across the country. Outside of Bangui where UNICEF and others were able to provide fuel to keep health centers operational, the entire cold chain system has broken down," said Mercado. "Health centers have been looted - including fridges and solar panels - and health staff have yet to return to their posts. The vaccination drive is possible because of a slight improvement in security in Bangui in recent weeks.”

Mercado said one-quarter of a million vaccines arrived in Bangui on May 15 for the campaign. She said vaccines have been distributed to all of Bangui’s eight districts, and hundreds of vaccinators and other health workers are in place. In addition, she said district-by-district drives are being planned immediately after the Bangui campaign.

Deadly cholera epidemic

Another health crisis has broken out in the West African country of Niger. On May 11, the government declared the country was in the grip of a cholera epidemic. The disease has left seven people dead in the western part of the country, including two Malian refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency says the two refugees, a 45-year-old man and a three-year old boy died, after arriving at a health center in Niger at a late stage of the disease. Both were refugees in the Mangaize camp, which hosts 15,000 in the Tillaberi region, including refugees from Mali.

UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming said the contamination, which caused the cholera outbreak, came from the community.

“So, UNHCR and partners are taking measures not only inside the refugee camp, but also in the community. The contamination came, as cholera typically does, through the consumption of contaminated water, we believe, from the nearby river,” she said.

Fleming said the UNHCR is working to spread public health messages in Niger for refugees in the camps, as well as for people in the local community. She said a vaccination campaign for the population at risk, both inside and outside the refugee camps, is a key measure under consideration.