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Measles epidemic

Jack Brockley | May 03, 2019

Father Pedro Opeka stands with children in Akamasoa, Madagascar.

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario in Madagascar: A disaster strikes the island. Disease spreads. People die. Most of them are children.

When cyclones battered coastal areas this past March, Father Pedro Opeka knew what to expect. As founder of Akamasoa — a community that helps families who live in the streets and on the garbage dumps of Madgascar’s capital, Antananarivo — he has, over the past three decades, witnessed the relationship between natural catastrophes and diseases in a country where families live in congested areas, oppose or cannot afford vaccinations and are reluctant to seek medical assistance until treatments are too late.

“Cholera and plague break out every year,” Opeka says.

This past year, however, the cyclones left behind an outbreak of measles. Though usually benign, the disease quickly became an epidemic. About 117,000 cases were reported, according to the World Health Organization. More than 1,200 victims died, of whom nearly 80 percent were under the age of 14.

Thirty-nine of those who died were children from Akamasoa. In response to the epidemic, the Kiwanis Austria District — a longtime supporter of Opeka’s mission — donated 10,000 euro to assist with immunization, treatments and preventative measures.

“The biggest crisis is over,” Opeka wrote to the Austria District this past March. “But too many people are living in too small of a space. … Every year, the cyclone season causes epidemics that, with limited resources, are hardly possible to keep in check.”

This past March, the Vatican reported that Pope Francis would visit Madagascar in September. Crux, an online newspaper that focuses on news related to the Roman Catholic Church, mentioned the pope’s “alleged” interest in visiting Akamasoa.

In 2005, Kiwanis International awarded Opeka its World Service Medal for his devotion to the “poorest of the poor.” Akamasoa has been a recipient of Kiwanis Children’s Fund grants.

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