Monica Mutsvangwa

Anti-vaxxers hamper measles fight

A MEASLES outbreak in Zimbabwe has killed over 150 children. The government has launched a mass vaccination campaign to contain the spread, but faces stiff resistance from unvaccinated families due to religious beliefs.

Zimbabwe has reported at least 2 056 cases of measles as of mid-August. Virtually 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 Manicaland province at the beginning of August, spreading rapidly across the country. Health authorities are scrambling to contain the spread. The government has announced a mass vaccination campaign targeting children between the ages of six months and 15 years.

Authorities are also trying to engage traditional and faith leaders to support the drive. Zimbabwe has continued vaccinating children against measles during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the drive has been hampered by religious groups preaching against vaccines.

The Christian sects in question are against modern medicine and have told their members to rely on self-proclaimed prophets for healing. DW caught up with one of the religious groups on an annual pilgrimage in Manicaland, where thousands of members of the Johane Marange Apostolic sect had gathered to listen to an oracle.

The church doctrine does not allow its members to be vaccinated or seek medical treatment when they fall sick. Measles is among the most infectious diseases in the world. The childhood infection is caused by a virus that can be fatal for small children. It primarily spreads in the air by coughing, sneezing or through close contact. Symptoms include coughing, fever and a skin rash.

However, a vaccine can easily prevent the disease. But 56-year-old sect member Kuziva Kudzanai told DW it was a sin to seek medical treatment. “If anyone gets sick, they will go to the church elders for prayers,” he insisted. Church gatherings that have resumed following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions have themselves “led to the spread of measles to previously unaffected areas,” the Health ministry said in a statement last week.

The prohibition on medical care also applies to pregnant women, sect member Janet Hanyanisi told DW. “We are not allowed to be vaccinated or even to go to a hospital for treatment. Instead, we go to our church midwives for delivery,” she said. Health authorities have struggled to break down some religious communities’ resistance to vaccinating their children, who they believe are speeding up the spread of the disease.

“So far what we have seen that almost all the dead are unvaccinated children,” said Cephas Hote, a medical officer in Mutasa District, one of the worst-affected regions. He added that there were a few infections among vaccinated children, but only with mild symptoms. The government has reacted to the outbreak by launching a national measles vaccination blitz.

July Moyo, a minister in the Local Government, said several government departments and the police are enforcing the vaccination to “tackle the emergency.” Moyo hopes the involvement of the entire government will ensure that “people, especially children, get vaccinated.”

Before the current outbreak, Zimbabwe had not recorded a single measles case for more than 10 years. Public health authorities are hoping the current outbreak can be contained before it becomes an epidemic. Scientists estimate more than 90 percent of the population needs to be immunized to prevent measles outbreaks.

In April, the World Health Organization warned of an increase in measles cases in vulnerable countries as a result of a disruption of services due to Covid-19. UNICEF has said about 25 million children worldwide have missed out on routine immunizations against common childhood diseases, calling it a “red alert” for child health. — DW

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