Slowing the Coronavirus Is Speeding the Spread of Other Diseases

This had been the year that Congo, the second-largest country in Africa, was to launch a national immunization program. The urgency could not have been greater. The measles epidemic in the country, which started in 2018, has run on and on: Since this January alone, there have been more than 60,000 cases and 800 deaths. Now, Ebola has again flared, in addition to tuberculosis and cholera, which regularly strike the country.

Vaccines exist for all these diseases, although they are not always available. In late 2018, the country began an immunization initiative in nine provinces. It was a feat of coordination and initiative, and in 2019, the first full year, the percentage of fully immunized children jumped from 42 to 62 percent in Kinshasa, the capital.

This spring, as the program was being readied for its nationwide rollout, the coronavirus struck. Mass vaccination campaigns, which often mean summoning hundreds of children to sit close together in schoolyards and markets, seemed guaranteed to spread coronavirus. Even routine immunization, which typically occurs in clinics, became untenable in many areas.

The country’s health authorities decided to allow vaccinations to continue in areas with measles but no coronavirus cases. But the pandemic froze international flights that would bring medical supplies, and several provinces began running out of vaccines for polio, measles and tuberculosis.

When immunization supplies finally arrived in Kinshasa, they could not be moved around the country. Domestic flights had been suspended. Ground transport was not viable because of shoddy roads. Eventually, a United Nations peacekeeping mission ferried supplies on its planes.

Still, health workers, who had no masks, gloves or sanitizing gel, worried about getting infected; many stopped working. Others were diverted to be trained for Covid.

The cumulative impact has been particularly dire for polio eradication — around 85,000 Congolese children have not received that vaccine.

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