Measles outbreak in Malawi: more than 2.5 million children vaccinated, and over 8000 patients in care

03.06.2010 | General

Since February, Malawi has faced its biggest measles epidemic in 13 years. Together with the country’s health authorities, MSF teams are providing care to measles patients and have launched vaccination campaigns for more than 2.5 million children. But more efforts will be needed at national and international level to put an end to this serious epidemic which put many lives at risk.

According to Malawi’s official figures, more than 9,000 have fallen ill to date and 44 have died. The measles epidemic threshold has been surpassed in 23 of the country’s 28 districts, while measles cases are continuing to affect new areas.MSF teams have decided thus far to focus their efforts on the six districts with the highest attack rate – number of new cases observed for a determined period and population. These districts are Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Lilongwe, Mangochi, Mzimba and Thyolo.

In collaboration with Malawi’s Ministry of Health, MSF has been providing medical care to 8106 measles patients since April. MSF has been supporting 88 hospitals and health centres located in both rural and urban areas. MSF support is ranging from reinforcing and training medical staff, to donations of treatments and equipment. In Blantyre, as measles also hit one of the main prisons, a specific 15-bed unit has been set up inside the hospital for prisoners with measles.

Measles is a major cause of death for children and adolescents throughout the world. The disease may cause serious side-effects and increases the risk of malnutrition.

In order to prevent further worsening of the epidemic, MSF together with the Ministry of Health launched several mass vaccination campaigns. Between 3rd and 18th May, MSF teams vaccinated 1.1 million children aged between six months and 15 years throughout Blantyre, Mzimba and Chiradzulu districts. On the very first day in Blantyre, more than 50 000 people were vaccinated, each vaccination team dealing on average with 1 500 children per day. Since 10th May, MSF has been carrying out another vaccination campaign in Thyolo district. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, MSF teams are expected to immunize 285 000 children in Thyolo.

Other mass vaccination campaigns are in preparation and should be starting soon in Lilongwe (targeting 900 000) and Mangochi (400 000). This should bring the total of vaccinated children to over 2.5 millions.Other MSF teams are continuing to assess the situation in other districts, such as Machinga and Balaka, southwest, where measles cases have been reported. MSF teams start treating patients and will begin, on June 12, mass vaccination campaigns in these areas for 400 000 persons.

Additional international and national staff have arrived to reinforce teams already on the ground before the beginning of the epidemic. 1 300 MSF employees, most of them Malawian staff, are currently running MSF’s emergency activities. But despite all these efforts, the current measles epidemic in Malawi has become very worrying. Therefore, more resources will need to be mobilised at national and international level to effectively tackle this epidemic and avoid the loss of many lives.

Measles, a regional emergency

Malawi is not the only southern African country to be hit by measles. Over the last few months, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe have recorded an increase in measles cases among their populations.

In Zimbabwe, the current measles outbreaks have affected 55 out of Zimbabwe’s 62 districts and killed 384 children. The Ministry of Health has launched a nationwide vaccination campaign targeting all children (approximately 5 million) aged 6 months to 14 years. MSF is assisting the authorities in the provision of care and vaccinations in Buhera and Epworth.

In South Africa, the government has reported more than 14,000 measles patients in all nine provinces from the beginning of 2009 to May 2010. An increase in the number of new cases reported each week has been observed in some provinces, notably KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. MSF supported the vaccination in the township of Khayelithsa, targeting around 100.00 children from 6 months to 15 years.

In Mozambique, MSF provided support for a measles vaccination campaign taking place in the north on the border with Malawi.

MSF teams in Swaziland and Zambia are following up the measles situation closely in the country.

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