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Shortage of Syringes Hampers Congo's Fight Against Yellow Fever

A shortage of syringes is hampering plans to vaccinate people in Democratic Republic of Congo against a yellow fever epidemic despite the arrival of more than one million doses of vaccine, health officials said on Tuesday.

Congo's government declared a yellow fever epidemic last month in the capital Kinshasa and two other provinces near the border with Angola.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says some 1,400 suspected cases of the hemorrhagic virus in Congo have resulted so far in 82 deaths and is particularly concerned about conditions in Kinshasa, a city of 12 million with poor health services and a climate conducive to mosquitoes.

The disease has killed 350 people in Angola since December.

The WHO plans to begin a vaccination campaign in the province of Kwango near the Angolan border on July 20 but the U.N. body's spokesman in Congo, Eugene Kabambi, said the country had only about four million syringes but needed 10 million.

Kabambi said some 1.08 million vaccine doses had arrived in Kinshasa in recent days, but declined to say when he thought more syringes might be delivered.

Health officials are reluctant to begin the vaccination campaign in only one zone in densely-populated Kinshasa for reasons of public safety and order.

"If we only organize in Kisenso, there will be huge crowds coming to Kisenso to obtain the vaccine and that could become unmanageable," Kabambi said, referring to the first zone officials plan to target in the capital city. "So we're going to wait a little to obtain more [syringes]."

Global vaccine shortage

The global stockpile of yellow fever vaccine stands at about 6 million doses after having been depleted twice this year to immunize people in Angola, Uganda and Congo. The current method for making vaccines, using chicken eggs, takes a year.

Health officials plan to administer a fifth of the standard dose in Kinshasa due to the shortage of the vaccine. The lower dosage provides temporary protection against the disease but does not confer lifelong immunity.

More than one million people were vaccinated in Kinshasa during a campaign from May 26-June 4 in two health zones. But the effort was hampered by disorganization as residents of other districts flocked to the vaccination sites, preventing many local residents from receiving the injection.

Kabambi said other regions along the Angolan border would eventually be vaccinated, depending on how many more doses are made available, in order to create an "immune buffer".