Massive Vaccination Campaign Starts In African Countries To Stop Yellow Fever Outbreak

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A man gets a yellow fever vaccine during a ceremony launching a response campaign against yellow fever in the district of Kisenso, Kinshasa, on July 20, 2016. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images)
A man gets a yellow fever vaccine during a ceremony launching a response campaign against yellow fever in the district of Kisenso, Kinshasa, on July 20, 2016. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images)

There's a huge vaccination push underway in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo to try to protect people there from yellow fever. The aim is to stop one of the biggest outbreaks of the disease in decades from spreading around the region and possibly the globe.

Yellow fever is a virus spread by the same mosquito that spreads Zika and dengue, and it's fatal in about 8 percent of cases. Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Dr. Daniel Lucey of Georgetown University.

Interview Highlights: Dr. Daniel Lucey

On what to do to prevent future outbreaks

"We know what we need to do going forward to prevent such outbreaks, particularly in cities — so-called urban yellow fever — in the future, which is do just what you said which is to vaccinate people in childhood for example. And that actually started about 10 years ago in West Africa. But for reasons that probably involve just not having the resources, money or otherwise, to make enough of this vaccine, not enough people were vaccinated and have been vaccinated in Angola before this outbreak, or in DR Congo."

On the possible future spread of yellow fever

"In addition to the mosquitoes flying — and these mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti, the so-called yellow fever mosquito but also transmits as you said, Zika and dengue, and chikungunya — they fly a short distance. But it can be the human beings traveling on the boat across the river for example from Kinshasa to Brazzaville. They might not be very sick, so they're able to travel on the boat, but they have the yellow fever virus in their blood.

And then you get to the other side, the mosquitoes that live on the other side of the river, then — for example if I had yellow fever and the virus in my blood, then they bite me and they take the virus from my blood, and then they start to bite and infect other people. I just wonder if it's not prudent to consider vaccinating along the northern border of DR Congo, which is shared with the Republic of Congo, and especially the capital Brazzaville."

On the possibility of yellow fever spreading to the U.S.

"Yellow fever virus hasn't caused outbreaks in the United States for a little bit over 100 years. I think the last outbreak was in New Orleans around 1905. Previously, it caused large outbreaks in the states, in Boston, in New York, Memphis, multiple outbreaks, New Orleans and elsewhere. I think it's unlikely that it's going to cause any big outbreaks. Could there be a few travelers? Yes, certainly. And again as you pointed out, it's the same Aedes mosquito that transmits yellow fever, that transmits Zika.

So all of the concern, the tension — that I believe is appropriate to control the Aedes mosquitoes now because of Zika — would at the same time help protect against yellow fever in the states. But the major, I would say that the worst case scenario, if you will, is if yellow fever goes to Asia. In other words, India, Indonesia, China, any of countries that have large cities that are like Kinshasa in other words, 10 million or more people. What would we do?"

On the possibility of a single vaccination for Zika, dengue and yellow fever

"I think that as our planet changes and a large part because of our species — the so-called age of humans, Anthropocene, the age between urbanization and globalization and climate change — that there will be an increasingly frequent series of epidemics or what I have started to call 'pan epidemics,' meaning widespread epidemics within a country or a region or even multiple continents.

Pan epidemics of viruses and bacteria and other infectious disease agents, and whatever we can do to prevent those we should do. But it's going to take a much, much better international collaboration working together to prevent and respond very rapidly and more comprehensively then we have in the past, for example for Ebola in 2014 in West Africa, in order to succeed."


Dr. Daniel Lucey, infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Georgetown University O'Neill Institute for Global Health Law. The institute tweets @oneillinstitute.

This article was originally published on August 18, 2016.

This segment aired on August 18, 2016.


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