LONDON (Reuters) - An epidemic of measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is "spiralling out of control", the international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Tuesday.
The doctors group said it had counted 21,000 measles cases since September 2010 in an epidemic sweeping through the central African country. It said urgent international action was needed to halt the spread of the highly contagious disease.
"Since September 2010 we have vaccinated more than 1.5 million children in response to the crisis. But the disease is spreading like wildfire. All parties involved in health in the DRC must now make this epidemic a national priority," said Gael Hankenne, MSF's head of mission in Congo.
Measles is a viral disease affecting mostly children and can cause complications such as pneumonia, malnutrition, severe dehydration, ear and eye infections that can lead to blindness.
It is one of the leading causes of death among children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available. Experts say it costs less than $1 to vaccinate a child against measles.
MSF said in a statement that the treatment and vaccination needs in the DRC were "huge", and the requirements in terms of human resources, finances and logistical capacity meant it alone could not provide the necessary hands-on response throughout the country.
"We are asking the ministry of health to launch a response immediately to outbreaks that occur," said MSF's Geza Harzi.
The charity also called on international donors and health organisations with activities in the DRC -- particularly U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the children's fund UNICEF -- to act immediately.
"If this international response is not rapid, it will be impossible to check the spread of measles," Harzi said.
Death rates from measles vary considerably depending on the context. In 2008, there were 164,000 measles deaths globally.
When a population has not been vaccinated, measles can kill between 1 and 15 percent of afflicted children, according to MSF. Among vulnerable groups, such as people who have been displaced or are malnourished, the mortality rate can rise to 25 percent if people have limited access to health care, as is the case in many parts of the DRC.