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.

A child being innoculated

A measles jab can protect a child against infection or severe illness

Zimbabwe has reported at least 2,056 cases of measles. Virtually all of the 157 deaths recorded were children who had not been vaccinated, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said last week.

The outbreak started in the Manicaland Eastern Province at the beginning of August, spreading rapidly across the country. Health authorities are scrambling to contain the spread.

The government announced a mass vaccination campaign targeting children aged between 6 months and 15 years. Authorities are trying to engage traditional and faith leaders to support the drive.

Zimbabwe continued vaccinating children against measles during the coronavirus pandemic. But the drive 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 rely on self-proclaimed prophets for healing.

DW caught up with one of the religious groups that had gathered for its annual pilgrimage in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Province, Manicaland.

Thousands of members of the Johanne Marange apostolic sect converged to listen to an oracle. They prayed and believed what they were told, including that they should reject medical science.

The church doctrine does not allow its members to be vaccinated or seek medical treatment when they fall sick.

A pregnant woman on a street in Harare

Some religious sects won’t allow pregnant women in Zimbabwe to get medical assistance

A preventable fatal disease

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 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.

Added pregnancy risks

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 with only mild symptoms.

 A woman gets vaccinated with an infant on her back

Zimbawean authorities have launched a vaccine campaign to contain the outbreak

The scramble to contain measles

The government reacted by launching a national measles vaccination blitz. July Moyo, a minister in the local government, says several government departments and the police are enforcing the vaccination to “tackle the emergency.”

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

Before the current outbreak, Zimbabwe had had no cases of measles for more than ten years. Public health authorities are hoping that the current outbreak can be contained before it becomes a pandemic.

Scientists estimate that more than 90% of the population needs to be immunized to prevent measles outbreaks.

In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of an increase in measles in vulnerable countries as a result of a disruption of services due to COVID-19.

Later, UNICEF said about 25 million children worldwide have missed out on routine immunizations against common childhood diseases, calling it a “red alert” for child health.

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