Democratic Republic of Congo

Measles Vaccines Are Free in DRC. So Why Don’t Parents Want to Vaccinate their Children?

A measles outbreak in DRC has caused nearly 2,000 deaths, but local beliefs and customs make parents reluctant to vaccinate their children against the disease.

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Measles Vaccines Are Free in DRC. So Why Don’t Parents Want to Vaccinate their Children?

Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

Nurse Feza Lenda, holding the syringe, vaccinates Plamedi Mpemba against measles at Lubunga General Hospital in Kisangani, a city in Democratic Republic of Congo. An outbreak of measles has spread throughout DRC in part because many parents there don't get their children vaccinated.

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KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In May, 2-year-old Aron Mukendi’s mother took him to a hospital because he had a high fever. Six days there brought no improvement.

Aron has the measles. There are vaccines available for children in this city, but many parents don’t want to use them. Aron recovered from the disease, but his mother’s ambivalence toward preventative treatments is a common perspective here.

“When there’s a vaccination campaign, it doesn’t interest me,” says Pétronelle Mayaza, Aron’s mother.

She says she leaves her house every day to sell smoked fish at a market on the banks of the Congo River. When she returns home in the evenings, it’s too late to take her children for vaccines.

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Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

Pétronelle Mayaza holds her son, Aron Mukendi. Aron contracted the measles but survived. Here, Aron is vaccinated by Nadia Lifeke, a nurse at Lubunga General Hospital in Kisangani, DRC.

A measles outbreak is spreading through several areas in Democratic Republic of Congo, including Kisangani, the capital of the country’s Tshopo province. In the first five months of 2019, there were nearly 2,000 measles-related deaths, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.

But even so, many parents don’t vaccinate their children.

Mayaza blames her apathy on a lack of time, but for many parents, that’s an easy cover for concerns that are deeply rooted in local beliefs. Some believe that vaccines, which are offered here for free, contain a poison that might harm their children in the future. Others say vaccines might push away their ancestors, who would otherwise protect their children.

It’s not uncommon for people in DRC to resist preventative treatments like vaccinations. In the eastern part of the country, where a major Ebola outbreak has killed an estimated 1,630 people, according to the World Health Organization, people are deeply angry at Ebola response teams who don’t allow them to practice their traditional funeral customs.

In Kisangani, Jérôme Molima, the provincial health inspector, says the Congolese government is collaborating with the World Health Organization to ensure that measles vaccinations are available. But he says that many health workers don’t know enough about vaccines to talk about them with parents adequately, and there’s no plan to vaccinate children who haven’t already been.

Bernadette Furaha, the government’s health minister for Tshopo Province, says vaccinations are the only way to combat the disease.

“Parents need to become aware and be cautious of rumors and have their kids vaccinated to better protect them,” she says.

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Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

From left, Leontine Kimpa, Marcel bin Amuri and Luc Kitoko stand in Lubunga General Hospital in Kisangani, DRC. The hospital’s staff is working to eradicate measles from the city. That’s a difficult task because many parents are skeptical of vaccinations.

There are some parents who respond well to programs intended to educate them about their children’s health.

Annie Kabondo says she brought her three children to a health center so that they could be vaccinated against measles. That was after she learned about the dangers of measles during a community health outreach campaign.

“It’s a disease that scares me,” she says.

For Carine Mafutala, though, it’s the vaccines that are scary. She believes they contain poison.

Mafutala hasn’t vaccinated any of her six children, even though one daughter died from the measles when she was 4 years old. Two of her other children have suffered from the disease, too.

She says she’s confused about how to help her children, but she still won’t vaccinate them.

“Ever since I gave birth, I’ve never wanted to have my kids vaccinated, because never in my lifetime have I put my trust in vaccines,” she says.

Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent measles and Ebola outbreak numbers.