Measles, adventure and vaccines

It has been commented several times that I had a more “interesting” first mission than most. Now the adjective “interested” is a dangerous, loaded term when working for MSF. So on my second the day in the clinic, when the nurse lead comes in and says to my colleague “you have had measles cases!?” I knew that things were going to get “interesting”.

It is a truism of measles that it is impossible to see only one case, if you have seen one, there are many many more nearby. This is a disease literally 8 times more infectious than Covid, and the most infectious disease in the world bar none. Despite this, being new to the mountains I could not help but have a smile on my face as, one morning, I jumped onto a donkey (well, that might be a bit of a generous description to the inelegant mounting manoeuvre that I undertook) and rode off one hour down the road to our first measles outreach clinic. This was the sort of adventure I had imagined undertaking when I was in medical school, all I needed now was a sunset to ride into.

So in a field and a barn just outside the village we set up shop, and after looking at the handful of women and children under the tree waiting I anticipated getting back for an early lunch. But after turning my back for 5 minutes I somehow missed the streams and streams of children that emerged from this tiny village like some sort of clown car. How did that many children live here? Like many things in this job I quickly became an expert as we wrote requests for antibiotics (to prevent chest infections), vitamin A (to prevent blindness) and supplementary food packets (to prevent malnutrition).

After this and another particularly scenic mobile clinic I conducted form a rock overlooking a clifftop I was essentially grounded. My colleagues superior donkey riding skills and that fact they didn’t need a translator made that much more useful than me as the project boss led them up and down the mountains treating kids in every village they came too for weeks on end. Whilst in the town my other colleague rustled up a vaccine campaign out of thin air and argued successfully for it to be implemented rapidly.

So, as I wasn’t involved at all in the logistics, I was pleasantly surprised as the first vaccine doses were rolled out only days later and after treating the nomadic tribes opportunistically as they came to market, the rest were loaded up onto camels as the teams transported them to the same remote villages that they had visited the weeks before.

And in our clinic we saw the results, a river of cases, became a stream, became a trickle. It stopped what felt like a nastier version of Covid (one that affected young children instead of older adults) and we got back to normal in a month(well as normal as this remote clinic ever got). But of course, it is not perfect, we heard that many children had died. Of a disease which is entirely preventable if only the outside world had cared enough about this population to vaccinate the year before, or the year before that. If MSF were not there no-one would have even have notice the outbreak. And, I know, in other forgotten corners of this beautiful but troubled continent there is still measles cases that is quietly taking lives without anyone noticing.