Zimbabwe has reported at least 2,056 measles cases. Almost all of the 157 recorded deaths were 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 6 months to 15 years. The authorities are trying to engage traditional and religious leaders to support the campaign.
Zimbabwe has continued to vaccinate children against measles during the coronavirus pandemic. But the campaign has been hampered by religious groups that preach against vaccines.
Rejection of modern medicine
The Christian sects in question are against modern medicine and tell their members to trust self-proclaimed prophets for healing.
DW met one of the religious groups that had gathered for his annual pilgrimage to Zimbabwe’s eastern province, Manicaland.
Thousands of members of the apostolic sect Johanne Marange converge to listen to an oracle. They prayed and believed what they were told, including that they should reject medical science.
The doctrine of the church does not allow its members to be vaccinated or to seek treatment when they fall ill.
Some religious sects do not allow pregnant women in Zimbabwe to seek medical assistance
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 through 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 the vaccinated children, but with only mild symptoms.
Zimbabwean authorities have launched a vaccination campaign to contain the outbreak
The scramble to contain measles
The government responded by launching a national measles vaccination campaign. July Moyo, local government minister, said several government departments and the police are mandating 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 any measles cases for over ten years. Public health authorities are hopeful that the current outbreak can be contained before it becomes a pandemic.
Scientists estimate that more than 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated to prevent measles outbreaks.
In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of an increase in measles in vulnerable countries following a disruption of services due to COVID-19.
Later, UNICEF said around 25 million children worldwide had missed routine vaccinations against common childhood illnesses, calling it a “red alert” for children’s health.
Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu