Earlier this year, Manicaland province was hit by a measles outbreak and within months the outbreak spread across the country claiming the lives of 157 children and not all of them were vaccinated.
The mainstay of measles control and prevention is immunization, but due to the lack of basic knowledge about vaccinating children at the right time and the unavailability of immunization monitoring, especially in communities rural areas, the country is struggling to eliminate measles.
In some cases, parents delay or refuse to immunize their children even when immunization services are available due to religious and cultural beliefs.
“I am staying with my two grandchildren who are under five and both are vaccinated against measles,” said Mary Makotose from Fundikwa Village in South Gokwe, Ward 13.
“It is true that a number of people in this village had not had their children vaccinated and of course some lost them to the disease.
“The reason why people weren’t taking children to be vaccinated is because they lacked knowledge while some were forbidden by their religious and cultural beliefs.”
Makotose said that over the past few weeks she had seen a number of families, including some from the Apostolic sect, bringing children in for measles vaccinations.
“We have noticed that some people do not vaccinate their children. They do it in broad daylight, something I attribute to the door-to-door campaign that goes around the village,” she said.
“We had people from the Red Cross preaching to us about the importance of vaccination.”
Makotose said more social mobilization of this nature should be done to improve uptake of vaccination.
The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS), with support from the American Red Cross, is bolstering government efforts to eliminate measles through social mobilization programs in high-risk communities, including Gokwe South in Midlands Province, Hopley, Southley Park and Epworth in Harare.
“The program is expected to contribute to the reduction of measles morbidity and mortality amid the Covid-19 pandemic through increased vaccine uptake and coverage,” said the Secretary General of the ZRCS, Elias Hwenga.
“Gokwe South was one of the worst affected districts in the country due to the number of cases, vaccination coverage and the large presence of community members resistant to vaccination promotion.
“Our organization’s response activities were intended to complement the efforts of the government and other stakeholders to strengthen herd immunity in the affected district.
“The social mobilization campaign was done through home visits by volunteers and the emphasis was on conveying key messages such as the location of vaccination sites, the benefits of vaccination and the vaccination of a high percentage of children possible in the target population”.
Hwenga said the target population was mainly made up of religious sects who shunned vaccinations.
Under the program, 310 volunteers were identified and trained by 31 supervisors who traveled to communities in Gokwe South.
There were six data stewards who led the research whose information would be shared with the Department of Health and Childcare.
Manokore village chief, Last Martin Manokore, said the door-to-door campaign had yielded results in his community.
“When the government embarked on the measles vaccination programme, there was some resistance from some villagers, but we later found out that after the Red Cross intervened, there was some resistance from some villagers. there was an influx of people seeking vaccination services,” Manokore said.
“As community leaders, we had to join the Red Cross to mobilize the villagers; even those who were limited by their religious beliefs responded to the call.
Manokore said social mobilization programs are very beneficial for communities, especially in addressing their health issues.
Tabeth Kamutatare from Mafungautsi suburb in Gokwe town said social mobilization programs should also extend to rural communities.
“These door-to-door campaigns are good, but I think they should be spread throughout the district, especially in marginalized communities where villagers lack awareness,” she said.
“We learned a lot from the campaigns and I now understand why it is important to vaccinate children and even myself.”
About 95% of a population must be vaccinated against measles to achieve herd immunity.
“Gokwe South has had no measles-related deaths since we started this program,” Hwenga said.
“Previously, vaccination coverage was around 65%, but we are aiming for 95%, which is the herd immunity threshold.”
Public health expert Johannes Marisa said the rise in missed vaccinations and falling rates of outbreak surveillance put measles elimination in the country at risk.
“There is a need to raise awareness of the importance of vaccination to improve the use of these lifesaving vaccines in communities, especially in outlying communities and churches,” Marisa said.
“The trick is to encourage communities to have children vaccinated and when we have herd immunity we are OK when it comes to outbreaks.”