Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola have begun one of the biggest ever emergency vaccination campaigns in Africa to curb a yellow fever epidemic that has killed hundreds since the beginning of this year.
The two countries will work closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to vaccinate at least 14 million people in a bid to curb the epidemic. According to WHO, the yellow fever outbreak has killed more than 400 people in Angola and DRC, and affected thousands more. Fever, muscle pains, nausea, bleeding – these are the signs of yellow fever. DW spoke to Tarik Jasarevic, head of media relations at WHO in Geneva.
DW: What are some of your expectations for this massive vaccination campaign?
Jasarevic: We hope first of all that the campaign will go well and that we will be able to vaccinate fourteen million people in both Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo. As you know this is a huge operation because we are aiming to do this in just a couple of weeks. To illustrate the scope of the operation, let me just mention that 41,000 health workers and volunteers have been mobilized. There will be more than 8,000 vaccination sites and we have deployed 500 vehicles. So it is a massive effort, and we think that it is important that we try to protect as many people as possible before the rainy season starts as that would not only see an increase in the number of mosquitoes, but also make operations more challenging from the logistical point of view.
Has there been enough engagement of local communities in the two countries in order for the vaccination exercise to end successfully before the rainy season begins?
We already vaccinated more than 16 million people in Angola, then a couple of million in DRC, and also in Uganda where there was an unrelated outbreak of yellow fever that was actually stopped. So there is for sure awareness, especially in Angola, because, with all the vaccination campaigns that took place there, we are now at a stage where we have not had any confirmed cases in that country for eight weeks now. However, it is extremely important that we explain to people, especially in big cities like Kinshasa, why it is important to get vaccinated. There is ongoing work primarily with the ministry of health and other partners to provide this information to the community leaders, so that people participate and come out to be vaccinated.
And how do you intend to prevent vaccines ending up on the black market, as was the case in Angola when they are meant to be free of charge?
Well, we work with the government obviously to try to monitor the arrival and use of the vaccines. What happened in Angola was that at the beginning of the first campaigns, it happened that some vaccines were used in other medical facilities than those that were originally planned to be points of vaccination. So no vaccines have really disappeared. It is really important to work jointly with the ministry of health and other partners to help prepare and maintain the campaign.
Do you think WHO and its partners will be able put an end to the spread of yellow fever, especially in the DRC and Angola?
Well, we definitely hope that we will be able to contain this outbreak. Yellow fever has been there for many years, and what we have seen is that the vaccine is safe and efficient. And since the announcement of the yellow fever initiative in 2006, we managed to vaccinate more than 100 million people, especially in Western Africa. We’ve also seen that there were fewer yellow fever outbreaks and we also know that with increased urbanization and connectivity, with more travel and climate change that may enhance the habitats of mosquitoes, there is a risk of the spread of any mosquito-borne diseases from one place to another, including yellow fever. At the same time we are increasing the production of vaccines, there are more countries putting yellow vaccines into routine immunization programs, but at the same time we have to be vigilant because what we have seen now for the first time is the virus coming to big cities and then it becomes more complicated to fight the disease.
Tarik Jasarevic is the head of media relations at the World health Organization
Interview: Isaac Mugabi