By Cyrus Sinai and Nicole Hoff, UCLA-DRC Research Program
Vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) such as measles, rubella, and tetanus are dangerous and highly infectious diseases that continue to disproportionately burden the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet are easily preventable with routine vaccination of children under age 5. Although mortality from VPDs has dramatically declined throughout sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades, the DRC’s unique history of conflict and lack of infrastructure have left thousands of Congolese particularly vulnerable to these easily preventable diseases compared to other African countries. Today, the Congolese Ministry of Health and its National Vaccination Program (PEV) based in the capital city of Kinshasa face the enormous task of tracking down and controlling outbreaks of these diseases throughout the country’s vast expanse. For vaccination programs to be truly effective in preventing the spread of highly infectious diseases such as measles, rubella, and tetanus, a majority of the population must be vaccinated – in the field of epidemiology, this is called herd immunity. In the DRC, PEV and its partner organizations aim to achieve this goal by targeting vaccination towards all children under the age of five.
But in a country as vast as the Congo where the majority of the population is cut off from reliable transportation, how do you even reach every child under the age of five? Throughout the year, PEV organizes several mass vaccination campaigns where mobile teams are dispatched to selected provinces to visit all villages within these provinces’ health zones. Mobile teams will go just about anywhere to reach the children they need to vaccinate, whether by plane, canoe, or motorcycle. Yet, mobile teams will only go to villages in a health zone that they know how to get to – in other words, if they can’t find certain villages on their maps, then they will not able to visit these villages for vaccination. Considering how many of Congo’s villages have yet to be even mapped, it becomes crucial to ‘find’ these villages so that the goal of vaccinating all children under age five can truly be achieved.
The UCLA-DRC Research Program, which is based in Kinshasa at the National Institute of Biomedical Research, has collaborated with PEV to provide them with technical assistance for their routine and mass vaccination efforts. One of the current projects our program is undertaking involves working with provincial health programs and their health zones to map all of their villages so that they can be identified and visited by programs such as PEV and national health programs in efforts such as mobile teams that screen for Human African Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), a parasitic vector-borne disease endemic to the Congo. In the first week of March 2016, our team visited the town of Kikwit in the province of Bandundu to begin mapping these unmapped villages with health zone chiefs. Below shows just how we did that, using the example of Yassa Bonga health zone.