Children in Guinea protected against measles

Published: 14 November 2003 0:00 CET

Bonnie Gillespie, American Red Cross, in Conakry

As part of sweeping efforts to eliminate measles from Africa, a Measles Initiative programme was launched this week in Guinea. More than 3.5 million children in the West African nation are being vaccinated against a disease that has largely been forgotten in the developed world, but which remains the biggest vaccine-preventable childhood killer in many areas of the world.

In partnership with the American Red Cross (ARC), the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the UN Foundation and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Guinea Red Cross is working to vaccinate children even in the most remote areas of the poverty-stricken nation.

Measles claims the lives of almost half a million children in Africa each year. The Red Cross and its partners are seeking to put an end to that grim statistic - they believe the deadly disease can be drastically reduced by mass immunisation campaigns like the one launched in Guinea, as long as they are followed by routine immunisation services.

So far, that belief has been backed by success. Since the Measles Initiative began in 2001, 22 countries have implemented mass campaigns, with efforts in Guinea anticipated to bring total vaccinated children to more than 106 million, more than halfway to the Initiative’s goal of vaccinating 200 million children by 2005.

“The Measles Initiative campaign is like the kick-off of a child health campaign in Guinea because it’s a partnership to improve overall health of children in the country,” said Dr. Mark Grabowsky, Senior Health Advisor for the American Red Cross and leader of the ARC delegation participating in the Guinea campaign.

“There are three hundred thousand births per year in Guinea. Of those, 4,000 will die of measles. All of those children who die will not have been vaccinated,” he added.

However, in poor nations like Guinea, simply having enough food for survival is a much greater priority than health care. Situated in one of the world’s most politically volatile regions, the majority of Guinea’s 7.3 million citizens are impoverished and malnourished, with an annual per capita income equivalent to only US$550.

Most residents lack adequate nutrition, let alone medical care. Without enough food or access to clean water, they endure harsh living conditions that attribute to poor health, especially for the young and vulnerable.

“The families are poor and when they come to the hospital, they have to pay for everything, and that’s probably all the money they have,” said Dr Taibou Barry, director of the Hospital Donka in the capital, Conakry, for the past 15 years. “So they must choose to eat or to come to the hospital.”

According to Dr Barry, most choose not to seek medical care and instead attempt to treat diseases at home with ineffective traditional remedies. In many cases, this is tantamount to leaving the condition untreated.

“Malaria, measles, severe malnutrition, and all the complications that go along with those health concerns, like eye and lung problems – those are the problems people have here,” said Dr. Barry.

“People come to the hospital when there is nothing left to do. They will try to medicate themselves and by the time they come to the hospital they have scars all over them from the things they were trying and are more sick than before,” she pointed out.

Seventeen-year-old Diakite Mahawa brought her younger sister Mariam to Hospital Donka, after an untreated case of measles caused not only blotchy scarring on her skin but suspected brain damage as well.

“Our family is poor and we couldn’t get her treatment so she got worse,” said Mahawa, as her 11-year-old sister sat expressionless on the hospital bed beside her. “My sister was so upset and so afraid and now we don’t know what is wrong with her.”

Mariam Mahawa and more than 30 million other children who contracted measles last year could have been spared the suffering that accompanies the disease with a simple vaccination that costs as little as one US dollar per child.

Yet with each passing hour, 51 more children will have died in Africa as a result of measles.