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In Sudan, Aid Groups Struggle With Massive Measles Outbreak

FILE - Sudan targets eight million children in vaccination campaign against measles.
FILE - Sudan targets eight million children in vaccination campaign against measles.

Aid agencies are struggling to contain a massive measles outbreak in Sudan. The Ministry of Health is leading a United Nations and international effort to vaccinate 8 million children under age five against the sometimes fatal disease, which so far has claimed 27 child lives.

Aid agencies have just completed the first phase of an immunization campaign in which 2 million Sudanese children were vaccinated against measles. They now plan to fan out throughout the country to immunize millions of other young children and young adults under age 30 who are at risk.

Speaking by phone from the capital, Khartoum, the representative for the U.N. Children’s Fund in Sudan, Geert Cappelaere, says the country is suffering its biggest measles outbreak in years. He attributes much of the problem to a lack of routine immunizations against the disease and to the inability to reach several areas of conflict.

Cappelaere says about one-half-million children are being deprived of humanitarian aid, including essential vaccines in Jebel Marra, which borders northern, central, and southern Darfur, the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan and some areas in the Blue Nile states.

“Because of conflict, we have not been able to access the population in some areas for the last four years," said Cappelaere. "So, we have there a massive group of children that are unvaccinated and may be one of the causes of the outbreak of measles we are having today.”

Cappelaere is appealing to the government of Sudan and all rebel forces active in the country to allow aid agencies immediate access to no-go areas so they can immunize the hundreds of thousands of children who have been deprived of life-saving vaccines for several years.

Over the last four months, UNICEF reports there have been 2,200 confirmed cases and 4,000 suspected cases of measles in Sudan. It says that is four times higher than the average annual measles caseload over the last few years.

It says 54 percent of confirmed cases are in children under age five, but 28 percent are among people over age 15. It says 14 of 18 states in Sudan are affected by the outbreak.

Sudan currently is trying to persuade the international community to relieve it of its outstanding foreign debt, which the International Monetary Fund estimates at $46 billion.

UNICEF representative Cappelaere tells VOA that creditors should not just look at the debt from a purely financial perspective. He says he would like to see that debt relief, if granted to Sudan, made conditional on the government spending some of that money for the health and well-being of its people.

“There, our emphasis is that that money when it comes available should be, as a matter of top priority, be invested in basic services, particularly health, nutrition and education,” said Cappelaere.

Cappelaere notes measles does not stop at borders. He says Sudan’s measles outbreak also is threatening neighboring Ethiopia, South Sudan and Chad. As a consequence, he says similar vaccination campaigns are taking place in those countries to protect their children and put a stop to the outbreak in the entire region.