Zimbabwe: Anti-vaccines hamper fight against measles | Health

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Zimbabwe reported at least 2,056 measles cases as of mid-August. Almost all of the 157 recorded deaths were in children who had not been vaccinated, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said last week.

The outbreak began in the eastern province of Manicaland in early August, spreading rapidly across the country. Health authorities are scrambling to contain the spread.

The government has announced a mass vaccination campaign targeting children aged six months to 15 years. The authorities are also trying to engage traditional and religious leaders to support the campaign.

Zimbabwe has continued to vaccinate children against measles during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the campaign has been hampered by religious groups preaching against vaccines.

Rejection of modern medicine

The Christian sects in question are against modern medicine and have told their members to rely on self-proclaimed prophets for healing.

DW met one of the religious groups during an annual pilgrimage to Manicaland, where thousands of members of the Apostolic Johane Marange sect had gathered to listen to an oracle. The doctrine of the church does not allow its members to be vaccinated or to seek treatment when they fall ill.

A preventable deadly disease

Measles is one of the most infectious diseases in the world. Childhood infection is caused by a virus that can be fatal to young children. It is mainly spread through the air by coughing, sneezing or close contact. Symptoms include cough, fever and rash. However, a vaccine can easily prevent the disease.

But 56-year-old cult member Kuziva Kudzanai told DW it was a sin to seek treatment. “If someone gets sick, they will go to the elders of the church for prayer,” he insisted.

Religious gatherings that resumed after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions have themselves ‘led to the spread of measles in previously unaffected areas,’ the health ministry said in a statement last week. .

Additional pregnancy risks

The ban on medical care also applies to pregnant women, cult member Janet Hanyanisi told DW. “We are not allowed to be vaccinated or even to go to the hospital for treatment. Instead, we go to our church midwives to give birth,” she said. .

Health authorities have struggled to break down the resistance of some religious communities to vaccinating their children, which they say is accelerating the spread of the disease.

“So far what we have seen is that almost all the dead are unvaccinated children,” said Cephas Hote, a doctor in Mutasa district, one of the worst affected areas. He added that there were some infections among vaccinated children, but only with mild symptoms.

Struggling to contain measles

The government responded to the outbreak by launching a national measles vaccination campaign. July Moyo, local government minister, said several government departments and the police are applying the vaccination to “deal with the emergency”.

Moyo hopes that the involvement of the whole government will ensure that “people, especially children, are vaccinated”.

Prior to the current outbreak, Zimbabwe had not recorded a single case of measles for over 10 years. Public health authorities are hopeful that the current outbreak can be contained before it becomes an epidemic.

Scientists estimate that over 90% of the population must be immunized to prevent measles outbreaks.

In April, the World Health Organization warned of an increase in measles cases in vulnerable countries following a disruption of services due to COVID-19.

UNICEF said around 25 million children worldwide had not received routine vaccinations against common childhood illnesses, calling it a “red alert” for children’s health.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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