Goodbye Measles!

Antonia is a nurse with MSF's emergency unit. She's a first responder in any breaking emergency, including a recent measles epidemic in Sierra Leone. 

Again, a mission is over. Everything goes so fast.

Actually it’s not so bad: I had no time to write a new blog post during my mission - so it helps me now, here at home, to get a different point of view and to process everything that happened. Not to be in the middle of the hurricane, but to take a step back and get an overview, which is sometimes so difficult when you are on your mission. Often I’m so focused there I will only see time limits and requirements.

But one step at a time…

After my last mission, in Ethiopia, I needed a holiday to bring body and soul back into balance. The lost kilos were quickly back and soon I felt again "ready to go" again. As an employee in the MSF emergency pool it is always very exciting - and nerve-wracking! – as you wait to find out where to go next, because you simply can’t plan emergencies. So there has been speculation about Angola and Yemen, until I ended up in Sierra Leone, for the second time.

The children proudly display their marked fingers to prove that they have been vaccinated ...Photo: © Antonia Zemp / MSF

Like in Ethiopia, a measles epidemic is on the rise in this country - an extremely large threat here in Sierra Leone, as the health care system has been severely weakened by the long Ebola epidemic. Ebola has taken the lives of many people who worked in the health care system. Because of Ebola, routine vaccinations for children were reduced during the last 2 years, which of course has enormous consequences, as we see in the measles epidemic. 

Measles is a highly contagious and potentially lethal viral disease. The Ministry of Health has organised a national vaccination campaign and MSF supports the campaign in the regions that are most difficult to reach – where most logistics are needed. MSF usually chooses the biggest challenges! My team and I are therefore heavily sweating – and that’s not just because of the hot temperatures outside!

The dense forest of Sierra LeonePhoto: © Antonia Zemp / MSF

A major challenge is the fact that the measles vaccine must always be stored between 2-8°C. In the regions where we worked, electricity is not always available. So we had to transport power generators, freezers and refrigerators across the country – this is known as the “cold chain”. The ice-packs for the transport of vaccines in small coolers had been pre-frozen weeks before, and then shipped from one place to another and treated like gold because all vaccinations depend on them.

Our vaccination teams were travelling with cars, motorcycles and even on foot because often the way to the villages was through rivers and over "single-planked" bridges that didn’t look very trustworthy!

The team assemble planks to form a bridge, while the MSF car waits in the backgroundPhoto: © Antonia Zemp / MSF

People in some parts of Sierra Leone still associate MSF with Ebola. It meant that they were therefore partly afraid of us because they thought we would bring back Ebola. Thanks to our local teams and working closely with the village leaders, we were able to counteract these presumptions. And as soon as the "Paramount Chief" (the leader) had his son vaccinated, observed by the whole village, that was advertising par excellence and one of the wonderful, very moving “goosebumps” moments for me.

A total of 425 employees, 20 cars, 80 motorcycles and about 100 coolers were on the road for 7 days. And…


The children proudly display their pink vaccination cards... Photo: © Antonia Zemp / MSF

What a feeling! Indescribable. And as always, the result helps to overcome all the stress, the worked-through nights and also some tough decision-making ...

65,000 children without measles, no reward could be better.