GENEVA (Reuters) – A measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed 5,000 people this year, many of them young children, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Low immunization rates and high levels of malnutrition have fueled the epidemic and high mortality rates, especially in North Kivu province, which is also reeling from an Ebola epidemic, it said.

“Since the start of 2019, more than 250,000 suspected (measles) cases and over 5,000 deaths mostly among children under 5 years, have been recorded,” the WHO said in a statement.

A first measles vaccination campaign was launched to protect people against the infectious disease that has struck all of the country’s 26 provinces, it said.

A third phase of the campaign is planned, with the ultimate aim of reaching 18.9 million children across the country by year-end, it added.

“While the Ebola outbreak in the DRC has won the world’s attention and progress is being made in saving lives, we must not forget the other urgent health needs the country faces,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Vaccination is most challenging in North Kivu, where 2.2 million people are to be vaccinated in this round, because of high insecurity following armed attacks that make some areas inaccessible to aid workers, WHO said.

The world’s second biggest Ebola epidemic on record has killed more than 2,200 people since mid-2018, but new infections slowed in recent months, the WHO said last week, while warning that Ebola was likely to resurge.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by Timothy Heritage)