Because of the global attention focus on the Zika virus, the yellow fever outbreak in Africa this year is near being a disaster than is widely recognized.
The continent’s public health experts recently disclosed that epidemic also revealed clear weaknesses in the emergency vaccine supply pipeline.
The outbreak, which began last December and appeared to be over as of September, went largely unnoticed because attention was focused on the Zika epidemic. Some aspects were truly frightening, experts said at the annual conference of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Atlanta in mid-November.
Ultimately, the yellow fever epidemic was halted only by a huge vaccination campaign that stretched supplies by diluting doses, and even that succeeded only because some unusual donors stepped in.
The first deaths in Angola were misdiagnosed as food poisoning; the global emergency vaccine stockpile was depleted before even one city was fully protected; and diagnostic laboratories were so far away that it was months before the scope of the outbreak was clear and global alarm was raised.
Brazil contributed 18 million doses of yellow fever vaccine — three times the amount in the emergency stockpile — to contain the African outbreak. Even South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest nations, gave up 400,000 doses intended for its children.
For the first time, the virus reached Asia — a sub region with no yellow fever immunity.
“It did not get a foothold in Asia, but if it did, it would be a real nightmare,” said Dr. Axelle Ronsse, an emergency medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, which led the fight against yellow fever in the Democratic Republic of Congo.