Race to Prevent Congo Yellow Fever Disaster

Race to Prevent Congo Yellow Fever DisasterRace to Prevent Congo Yellow Fever Disaster

It is the stuff of a disaster movie: an outbreak of yellow fever in Congo’s capital city, full of unvaccinated people mostly huddled together in slums with too few drains and the kind of sticky, fetid climate that mosquitoes love.

Kinshasa’s 12 million people - twice as many as there are doses of yellow fever vaccine anywhere in the world - are largely unprotected against this sometimes deadly but easily preventable illness, which has killed at least 353 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbor Angola.

And though the mosquito-borne virus has yet to gain momentum in Africa’s third largest metropolis, officials in Congo’s government and the World Health Organization (WHO) are racing to avoid a repeat of the kind of urban epidemics that decimated western cities like New York and Philadelphia in centuries past, Reuters reported.

With three weeks to go before they start a vaccination campaign for 11.6 million people against the hemorrhagic virus in three Congolese provinces, and only 1.3 million doses of the vaccine on their way to Congo, time is not on their side.

“The epidemic has become something that can exponentially reinforce itself. It’s not that easy to reverse,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) head of operations Bart Janssens said.

“The risk is ... (significant) that this could become a big epidemic ... That’s what we’d like to avoid at all costs.”

“Kinshasa has millions of inhabitants. We cannot allow the epidemic to spread there,” Congo’s health minister Felix Kabange told Reuters by telephone.

“We realized that if we gave the full dose, the time needed to manufacture all those vaccines would risk allowing the epidemic to embrace the whole country.”

There are currently just six million doses of vaccine in the world, and the method of making more, using chicken eggs, takes about a year. As an emergency measure, health officials have decided to split the doses into fifths, enabling them to cover more people, although only for a year rather than a lifetime.

Yellow fever was once a big killer in the West, wiping out about a tenth of the population of New York and Philadelphia in the 18th century. Then, 80 years ago, a vaccine was created and the virus was quickly eradicated in the rich world.

The current outbreak, with 3,464 suspected cases so far, about a third of them in Congo, began in Angola in December. A small but significant fraction of those who catch the disease die from jaundice, bleeding and multiple organ failure.