The World Health Organization reported late last month that the ongoing yellow fever outbreak in Africa is serious but that it does not warrant being declared an international health emergency.
Since it was first identified in Angola in December 2015, yellow fever has spread to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and is believed to have sickened more than 6,300 people and killed about 400, despite millions of doses of vaccine having been sent repeatedly to Angola. In August, some 7.7 million people were vaccinated in a major campaign that was launched in the “high risk” DRC capital Kinshasa, along with 1.5 million in other parts of the country. In Angola, 2.4 million people have been vaccinated, making 11.6 million in all.
The campaigns have depleted the global stockpile of 6 million yellow fever vaccine doses twice this year already, which according to the WHO is unprecedented. The vaccine shortage has now become so acute that officials have begun diluting the vaccine by 80 percent in a bid to stretch the supply. The four major manufacturers who supply the global stockpile have worked around the clock in order to replenish the stockpile.
Last month, the UN health agency convened an emergency committee of experts to consider the outbreak’s status, stating afterwards that the increase of the mosquito-spread haemorrhagic fever appears to have slowed. The WHO further reported that since 12 July there have been no new infections reported in what is an “extremely positive” trend. The upcoming rainy season has raised fears of further spread of the worst outbreak in decades. It also noted that intense population movements across the border to neighbouring Republic of Congo pose a risk of further spread, adding that the Brazzaville government should consider a “pre-emptive vaccination campaign in high-risk areas,” noting that the virus was moving towards Central and Eastern Africa.
Gunshots were heard Wednesday in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa, as police cracked down on a new student demonstration at the city’s main university, following two days of bloody violence that has been sparked by attempts by President Joseph Kabila to extend his term in office beyond the 2016 presidential elections.
Protests erupted on Monday and have continued over the past days, with many heading to the streets, protesting against the government’s attempts to extend President Kabila’s term. On Wednesday, security forces sealed off the government-run University of Kinshasa, which has been the focal point of protests over the past three days. The protests also prompted the Roman Catholic Church to close its schools in the capital city on Wednesday, with Cardinal Pasinya announcing that they will remain closed until Monday. According to government spokesman Lambert Mende, eleven people, including a policeman, have been killed in the protests, with twenty-two others wounded. The opposition however has disputed these figures. Opposition leader Vital Kamerhe has indicated that at least twenty-eight protesters have been killed – twenty on Monday and eight on Tuesday. Protests in Kinshasa, which has a population of more than 9 million and which is seen as an opposition stronghold, are likely to continue over the coming days.
The protests coincided with a debate in the Senate, the upper parliamentary chamber, over government plans to hold a census before the elections. On Saturday, the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, approved the plan in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition MP’s. Most senators, including members of the governing party, have indicated that they are opposed to the plan as it risks destabilizing the country. The opposition has indicated that the move amounts to a “constitutional coup” by the president as it will take years for a census to be conducted in a country that has little infrastructure and which continues to be plagued by instability in the eastern region.
Opposition parties believe that the real aim of the new measures is to keep President Kabila in power after his mandate, which is set to expire in 2016. The president, who has won two disputed elections, is constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Sources have reported that the president’s regime is now seeking to make the staging of the presidential and parliamentary elections, which must be held by the end of 2016, contingent on the outcome of a census that is planned to start this year across the vast central African country. While the government had earlier indicated that it can complete the work within a year, this week, officials admitted that the election could be delayed and take place in 2017, however they have maintained that the census is vital to ensure that the polls are free and fair.
Both the opposition parties and regional analysts have indicated that the census would likely postpone the polls by at least two years and would effectively keep President Kabila in office for more than fifteen years. Officials have estimated that it would take up to three years to undertake a reliable census in a country that is still gripped by serious unrest in the east. The mineral-rich DRC has some 65 million people in a country that has little infrastructure and where difficult communications make any census highly difficult. The situation in the DRC is being closely followed after a move by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore late last year to extend his own time in office led to mass rallies that swiftly forced him to flee.