How we’re handling the giant threat of Yellow Fever

Yungi Mbuku gets a yellow fever vaccination at a heaslth centre in Kinshasa.
Yungi, 8, gets a yellow fever vaccination at a health centre in Kinshasa.

I’m trying to take notes, desperate to scribble down everything I’ve just seen and heard into my journal.

But the muddy road I’m on is just too bumpy, and my notes look like those of a first grader, at best. I give up. And I look out of the car window.

I’m in Kinshasa, the lively capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a city of more than 10 million inhabitants. And a city that is facing a giant threat: Yellow Fever.

High-risk conditions

The first cases of the potentially deadly disease were detected earlier this year and the virus has since spread to the capital, where vast slums make large-scale urban transmission a very real risk.

There is, luckily, a highly effective vaccine – but most of Kinshasa’s population has never been vaccinated. That’s about 7 million people, according to estimates.

To make matters worse, the absence of proper sanitation and sewage systems and many standing puddles make Kinshasa the perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes spreading the virus.

The rainy season, which should be starting any day now, isn’t all too promising, either.

The horror of yellow fever

Yellow Fever causes vomiting and diarrhoea, and has people shaking with peaks of fever. In severe cases it can turn eyes and skin yellow or even lead to bleeding from the eyes and mouth.

There’s no cure for Yellow Fever. On average, one in every ten people who catch the disease will die of it. A scary outlook when taking into account that in Kinshasa alone, 7 million people are at risk.

An ambitious vaccination campaign

I’m here for Save the Children, supporting the government-run vaccination campaign against Yellow Fever. It’s not just any vaccination campaign – it’s one of the largest ever mass vaccination campaigns to be held in Africa.

In a period of only ten days, the local Ministry of Health is looking at vaccinating virtually every person in Kinshasa. We’re supporting this campaign in Binza Ozone, a suburb of Kinshasa where 340,000 people are receiving their vaccines.

That’s 96% of the population.

Esther’s story

Esther, an 11 year old girl I recently met at one of the vaccination sites we support in Kinshasa, told me she wasn’t scared of getting her vaccination. That she was glad she’d be protected from Yellow Fever.

But still – when thinking of the needle about to pinch her arm, Esther buried her face in her hands, not showing me her expression. Maybe she was a little scared, after all.

Mothers who come to the vaccination sites with their children tell me how very grateful they are that the vaccines are being given to people for free.

If it weren’t for the Ministry of Health’s free vaccination campaign, most of the people would never be able to access the vaccine.

Global vaccine shortage

One incredible challenge remains, despite the Ministry of Health’s effort and the support of organisations like us: a global shortage in vaccines. Vials take over a year to produce – enough time for this outbreak to spiral out of control.

To bridge the gap, people receive so called ‘fractionalised’ doses. This means they are given one fifth of a dose, protecting them for at least one year. This allows some time for global production to pick up speed.

Save the Children staff transport cool boxes of Yellow Fever vaccine across the Binza neighbourhood of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Save the Children staff transport cool boxes containing Yellow Fever vaccine to health centres across the Binza neighbourhood of Kinshasa.

Cold chain and waste management – our experts at work

Our Emergency Health Unit (EHU) is a team of doctors, nurses, WASH managers, logistics specialists and other experts in the field of emergency health interventions. The EHU supports this vaccination campaign in Binza Ozone, a suburb of DRC’s capital Kinshasa.

We make sure vaccines are being kept cold from their central storage point up until they reach the 102 vaccination sites spread all across Binza Ozone. We also put in place a system for the collection and correct disposal of medical waste, including used needles and syringes.

These activities may seem trivial. But in a country where daily temperatures easily exceed 30° Celsius, where roadside ditches and waste disposal sites are usually considered the same thing and where roads are often too bumpy to even take notes – they are anything but trivial.

They are, in fact, essential parts to halting the spread of Yellow Fever, to bringing this outbreak under control, to protecting Kinshasa’s population – and its children.

Sarah Frattaroli works as a Communications Coordinator on the current Yellow Fever response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her work includes talking to people who are getting their vaccination about their personal stories and experiences, and then writing everything down in her journal – if road conditions allow.

Names have been changed to protect identity.

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