KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central Africa - Health workers have started a massive measles vaccination campaign in north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a region that's in the grip of the second deadliest Ebola virus outbreak on record.
UN Children's Fund UNICEF said on Thursday that it aims to inoculate 67,000 children in Ituri province.
They're just a small fraction of the 400,000 people displaced by an upsurge in communal violence and clashes between Government forces and non-State armed groups in the resource-rich area.
According to UNICEF, nearly 2,000 people have died from measles across DRC so far this year, more than two-thirds of them children under five.
Latest health data from DRC point to around 115,000 cases of suspected measles in the country, far more than the 65,000 tally last year.
Ebola a complicating factor in protecting the vulnerable
Tackling the measles outbreak is complicated by the fact that its symptoms – fever, redness around the eyes, diarrhoea – are similar to those displayed by Ebola patients.
On Wednesday, the DRC authorities reported that the latest Ebola outbreak – affecting Ituri and neighbouring North Kivu province - has killed 1,646 people since it began last August, while 683 people have recovered.
To avoid infection with Ebola virus, measles vaccinators must wear surgical gowns to prevent contact with blood or other bodily fluids carrying the deadly haemorrhagic disease.
Initial focus is on 'unsanitary' camps for displaced
As the measles vaccination campaign begins in Ituri, the UN agency said that it is focusing initially on protecting 27,000 children living in crowded camps in and around Bunia, the largest town in the province.
Many have been displaced by multiple attacks and counter-attacks involving Hema herders and Lendu farmers in recent months, as well as clashes between Congolese armed forces and non-state actors.
"The combined threat of Ebola and measles for the thousands of families living in overcrowded and unsanitary displacement camps is unprecedented," said UNICEF DRC Representative Edouard Beigbeder.
Ituri is home to 35 camps which are scattered across the province, UNICEF says.
Insecurity makes area 'virtually inacessible'
Many of those living in them are far away from treatment centres, the UN agency added in a statement, which noted that armed groups have destroyed up to half the health facilities in territory that is "virtually inaccessible" owing to insecurity.
"The northeastern part of DRC is home to one of the worst humanitarian crises today," Mr. Beigbeder said. "Whether it is from measles, Ebola, or the reality of living in a displacement camp, children are at grave risk. We must do everything we can to protect them."
Measles campaigns are also being planned for Tchomia and Nyankunde health zones, elsewhere in Ituri.