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Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are vaccinating close to 500,000 children against measles over two weeks.
The campaign was launched last Saturday in Conkary, the capital of Guinea, after an epidemic was officially declared on 14th January 2014.
Halimatou Touré has been at the Donka Hospital in Conakry for five days. Tight-lipped and expressionless, she runs her hand throught the hair of her son Oumar; his spots are evident.
Oumar, who is just over a year old, has already lost weight. His mouth is full sores, he is no longer eating and he has not nursed for the past two weeks.
What has caused this situation? Measles. While it is not considered serious in the developed countries, in Guinea it is taking lives.
Halimatou is angry. “I never knew that he had to be vaccinated; that’s why measles has taken my child.”
The paediatric unit is always busy. Each day, more children are brought in suffering from measles, and the three hospital wards will not be able to keep up if the epidemic and detection rates continue at this pace.
Like Oumar, the children being treated here have often developed complications because the proper diagnosis was not been made in time.
MSF aims to vaccinate up to 500,000 children in Conkary © Ikram N'gadi/MSF
“Some parents wait too long before coming in, and try to self-medicate,” says Namory Keita, a doctor working with MSF on the measles project.
“There is a popular belief is that giving palm wine to children can cure them. These cases come in too late, after the spots have broken out, and after there have been complications.
“People tend to forget that you can still die from this if it is not treated in time.”
His telephone rings. A case has been reported at one of the vaccination sites: “It’s my job - they call me to go out and assess a child’s condition. I examine the child on-site, and if the child is seriously ill, he or she has to be referred to a more specialised centre, where the more serious cases can receive treatment.”
In the shadow of a small mosque, MSF has set up its vaccination site beneath two large mango trees. Students from a neighbouring school have been brought directly here by their teachers. They are kept in order by Ibrahima Sory Cisse, a local official, who brandishes a microphone as they wait.
“Our team vaccinates between 1,000 and 1,300 children a day at this site,” explained Cisse.
“We have also detected and referred seven cases of infected children.
“I’m very pleased; we’re getting large numbers of children coming in. MSF officers have provided awareness training and so have I. This morning again, I took to my motorcycle at 5 am to get the message out in the schools, in the courtyards, in the mosques.”
Guinea and measles are no strangers: in 2009 an epidemic killed ten children.
Yet routine vaccinations have fallen behind; just slightly over half of Guinean children have been vaccinated, well below the 95 percent rate needed to prevent and epidemic.
In the districts of Ratoma, Matoto and Matam, where the epidemic was declared, parents are now coming forward in large numbers to the MSF vaccination sites in an attempt to have their children protected.