HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Dozens of women holding babies rushed to take their places on wooden benches at a clinic in Zimbabwe as a nurse ushered a separated group of anxious mothers and their children through a backdoor and in another room. The nurse quickly closed the door behind them.
The women were all at Mbare Polyclinic in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, to get their children vaccinated against measles amid a deadly outbreak in the southern African country. But those who were taken to the back room had their children vaccinated in secret, and in defiance of religious doctrine that forbids them to use modern drugs.
“The outbreak of the measles outbreak has seen children die, so they are now coming in secret and we are helping them,” said Lewis Foya, a nurse at the clinic.
More than 700 children have died of measles in Zimbabwe in an outbreak first reported in April. Many have not been vaccinated for religious reasons, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said.
The government has announced a vaccination campaign but, as with COVID-19, some religious groups are stubbornly opposed to vaccines and have obstructed the campaign.
Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs with Pentecostal doctrine are among the most skeptical of modern medicine in Zimbabwe. Followers instead place their faith in prayer, holy water, and other measures to ward off sickness or cure illnesses.
“They believe that if they get vaccinated they become godless, so that’s the doctrine they pass on to women,” Foya said. He said patriarchy in the church means women have “no power to openly say no” to instructions. The children are then in danger.
There has been little detailed research on apostolic churches in Zimbabwe, but studies by the UN children’s agency UNICEF estimate it to be the largest denomination with about 2 .5 million followers in a country of 15 million people. Some allow members to seek treatment. Many are still resistant.
So to save their children, some mothers go to clinics in secret, sometimes under cover of night and without the knowledge of their husbands. A group of apostolic church members open to modern medicine have tried to change church attitudes, but also advised women to go against church rules if it means helping their children .
“We encourage women to have their children vaccinated, perhaps at night,” said Debra Mpofu, a member of the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust. “It is really necessary for women to protect their children, so it is important that they sneak up.”
Secrecy is necessary because members who have visited health centers are shamed and prohibited from participating in church activities.
The World Health Organization warned in April of an increase in measles in vulnerable countries due to COVID-19 disruptions, with more than 40 countries postponing or suspending their regular vaccination campaigns. In July, UNICEF said around 25 million children worldwide had missed routine vaccinations against common childhood illnesses, calling it a “red alert” for children’s health.
Globally, WHO and UNICEF reported a 79% spike in measles in the first two months of 2022 alone and warned of the risk of large outbreaks. Children and pregnant women are most at risk of serious illness from measles, which is one of the most infectious diseases and easily preventable with a vaccine. Over 95% of measles deaths occur in developing countries.
Zimbabwe’s outbreak was first reported in the eastern province of Manicaland following religious gatherings and has spread across the country. The government, with the support of UNICEF, WHO and other non-governmental organizations, has embarked on an immunization campaign targeting millions of children.
At the clinic in Mbare, a mother said people had learned from the vaccine hesitancy that was prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people have been misinformed during this time of COVID-19 because they have been told that when you get vaccinated there will be sequelae,” said mother, Winnet Musiyarira. “So because of this a lot of people lost their lives and it was important that everyone took this seriously. So when I heard about measles I just said I had to take my children to the hospital and get them vaccinated.
Musiyarira said she was not a member of any religious group. Some women wearing matching white headscarves to indicate they were part of an apostolic church and who were at the Mbare clinic to have their children vaccinated secretly refused to speak to The Associated Press for fear of reprisals. church leaders.
Apostolic groups are notoriously suspicious of outsiders.
In a leafy area in the impoverished Epworth region outside Harare, apostolic worshipers dressed in white robes recently gathered outside, as is their tradition, to worship. Some knelt before self-proclaimed prophets as a man scooped up ashes from a fireplace and put them in a plastic bag to take home and use them to cure illness.
It is one of many congregations that the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust of Mpofu has approached. On this occasion, and after intense negotiations, Mpofu and his team were authorized to address the faithful and distribute vaccination leaflets. Church leader James Katsande has also agreed to allow his congregants to take their children to clinics.
But there was one condition: they had to approach the prophets of the church to be blessed before going to a clinic.
“We must first protect them with the Holy Spirit to cast out demons and bad luck,” said Katsande, a tall man wearing white robes and a white scarf with a cross on it. “We remain the first port of call,” he added.