Dakar — Mass emergency vaccination campaigns are now under way in Guinea to control a spreading outbreak of measles. The World Health Organization warns that measles is one of the most highly contagious diseases, and is a leading cause of death among children.
Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF said they were working with Guinea's Ministry of Health to vaccinate more than two million children between the ages of six months and 10 years against measles.
Guinea's measles outbreak began in December, and the government declared it had reached epidemic proportions.
The head of UNICEF's health program in Guinea, Dr. Salvator Nibitanga, spoke to VOA from the capital, Conakry.
"In the whole country, up to now, we have 1,590 cases. This is suspected cases. And among them, unfortunately, six deaths have been recorded. And this has covered around 23 districts out of 38. You can imagine that the situation is [quite bad] at the moment. And we also know that other districts will be affected in the coming days," he said.
The last outbreak of measles in Guinea, in 2009, affected more than 4,000 children and caused 10 deaths.
Most cases of measles are curable, but health experts say immunization is the best way to keep the death toll down.
WHO reported that vaccinations reduced the number of measles deaths globally by nearly 80 percent between 2000 and 2012.
But in Guinea, Doctors Without Borders said that less than 80 percent of children living in Conakry have received routine vaccinations that include protection against measles, and nationwide, only 37 percent of children have been received the specific anti-measles vaccine.
Dr. Renaldo Ortunio, a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Guinea, said even one case of measles was too much.
"Measles is a preventable disease by vaccine, so you shouldn't have an epidemic, an outbreak in this country. But unfortunately, there are some weaknesses in the Ministry of Health, in the regular vaccinations. ... And course, with this lack of vaccination among children, we see an outbreak every three to four years, which is currently the case in Conakry," he said.
Ortunio said large-scale immunization programs targeting measles were difficult because the vaccine must be kept well-refrigerated, and much of Guinea still did not not have access to electricity.
To help children who already have contracted the measles virus, UNICEF is supplying the Ministry of Health with antibiotics and vitamin A.
Doctors Without Borders is offering free measles diagnoses and follow-up medical care for cases in which there are complications. Teams of doctors are also training local health center staff to deal with measles cases.
Health officials in Guinea are now urging parents to seek medical care for their children at the first sign of measles. Symptoms include a high fever, blood-shot eyes, white spots on the mouth, and a rash on the face and neck.
The vaccination campaigns will continue - free of charge - for at least two weeks.