In the shadow of coronavirus, measles rips through Congo

In a hospital’s isolation ward in Democratic Republic of Congo, Dobo Mbanza is struggling to breathe.

She's not been infected with the new coronavirus, nor is she a victim of the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 2,000 people in the Central African nation.

She has the preventable, but extremely contagious, measles. And the three-year-old is going blind.

Her mother says she feels guilty - but she’s hardly to blame.

Underfunded and delayed government vaccination drives in DRC have left millions vulnerable.

Since January 2019 measles has ripped through the country unchecked and is still spreading in remote areas like Busu-Mandji, a dilapidated old colonial town deep in the jungle, hundreds of miles from the capital Kinshasa.

Keeping vaccines refrigerated on the journey here - which includes ten hours on motorbike - is a challenge.

And efforts to tackle measles were further complicated by the 19-month battle with Ebola.

Hundreds of millions of dollars and manpower were funneled into tackling that outbreak - to the expense of efforts to contain measles.

According to official figures, since the start of 2019 some 6,400 people have died from measles - which can also cause brain damage, blindness and deafness.

But Karel Janssens, head of Medecin Sans Frontiere's mission in DRC, said the actual mortality rate could be four or five times higher.


"There's a lot of health structures that are not functioning properly and so there's a lot of community deaths that are not reflected in some of the official reports."

Ebola is now on the wane, but DRC's first case of coronavirus was recorded earlier this month in the capital and infections had risen to 18 by the weekend.

Health experts say COVID-19 will likely be prioritized leaving Congo's deadly measles epidemic, once again, in the shadows.