The largest Yellow Fever epidemic for decades is sweeping the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola – and it could soon spread to the Americas, Asia and Europe.
This outbreak – the most severe to hit the region for 30 years – has claimed nearly 500 lives, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns those figures could be ten to 50 times higher.
What we’re doing
We’ve deployed our rapid reaction Emergency Health Unit (EHU) – a group of 11 health experts from countries including Italy, China, Korea and the USA.
They’re in the DRC’s capital Kinshasa – an overcrowded city of more than 10 million people – where they’ll support the Ministry of Health with a 10-day mass vaccination campaign that starts today.
Low stocks of vaccine
But there are only seven million emergency vaccines available – too few to even fully cover Kinshasa, let alone the whole of the country.
Following advice from the WHO, the vaccination campaign will uses just one fifth of a regular dose – to reach as many children and families as possible with the limited supplies that remain.
A full dose of the vaccine gives lifetime immunity, but this smaller dose will give immunity for about one year to many more people.
“We’ve got to urgently reach as many children and families as we can with the supplies that are left,” says our Country Director for the DRC, Heather Kerr.
“This is the only way we are able to do that right now. We can only hope this will be enough to stop the epidemic spreading any further.”
Supporting the ‘cold chain’
EHU experts will also help Ministry of Health staff secure the country’s so-called ‘cold chain.’
This involves keeping the scarce supplies of the vaccine as cool as possible, using freezers and cool boxes, while transporting them to vaccination sites.
The EHU experts will also treat the medical waste.
The worldwide risk
“There is no known cure for Yellow Fever and it could go global,” Kerr says.
“The mass vaccination campaign in Kinshasa needs to take place now so that we can try and stop Yellow Fever spreading by land and air to more cities in Africa and across the world.”
What is Yellow Fever?
Yellow Fever is spread by mosquitos, meaning in a hot, humid city like Kinshasa, quick transmission is very likely, particularly when the rainy season starts next month and mosquito numbers spike.
In this outbreak, about 20% of people who have caught Yellow Fever have died.
The final stages can cause bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose, organ failure and a condition known as jaundice, a yellowing of skin and eyes which originally gave the disease its name.