More than 700 children have died from measles outbreak in Zimbabwe

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe – A measles outbreak has killed more than 700 children and infected thousands more across Zimbabwe, highlighting the dangers of slowing childhood immunization campaigns globally.

As of September 6, the country’s Ministry of Health and Child Care has reported more than 6,500 cases and 704 deaths. It has not released numbers since then.

The outbreak is the result of a grim combination of factors that endanger children’s health in many countries.

Routine vaccinations have fallen dramatically in Zimbabwe during the Covid-19 pandemic. Worried parents stay away from medical centers; healthcare workers have been reassigned from routine immunization programs in response to the Covid-19 pandemic; and school closures and prolonged lockdowns have hampered normal outreach campaigns.

In July, the World Health Organization and UNICEF warned that millions of children, mostly in the poorest countries, missed some or all of their childhood vaccinations because of Covid lockdown, armed conflict and other obstacles. UN agencies call the situation the biggest turnaround in routine immunization in 30 years and warn that, combined with rapidly rising rates of malnutrition, it has created conditions can threaten the lives of millions of children.

Vaccination rates were already high in Zimbabwe before the pandemic, falling every year since 2017, as a decades-long economic and political crisis has severed the public health system.

Zimbabwe’s health system is very understaffed. Healthcare workers who have moved to neighboring South Africa or high-income countries for jobs where they will earn much more than the meager wages in Zimbabwe, which often fall short.

25 years ago, Zimbabwe had one of the highest vaccination coverage rates in sub-Saharan Africa, but vaccine hesitancy has increased as influential churches discourage vaccination and urge members rely on the prayers and intercession of pastors. The Johane Marange Apostolic Church, with hundreds of thousands of members, was at the center of the measles outbreak.

Some Apostolic and Protestant pastors have long opposed vaccinations, saying their prayers and sacred stones are enough to protect the faithful, and have threatened to deport women who bring children. I go to the clinic. This rhetoric, fueled by social media, grew in protest over the photos of Covid-19, which some mission leaders warned would contain “the mark of the beast.” Hesitancy has spilled over into resistance to the usual childhood snaps.

A spokesman for the federal Department of Health said it is making clerics the focus of new government efforts to get young children vaccinated.

Spokesman Donald Mujiri said: “The government has embarked on a mass vaccination campaign reaching out to faith leaders to garner support and awareness. “Children aged 6 months to 15 years are most affected, especially in religious denominations that do not believe in vaccinations. The department remains committed that no children will die from measles.”

The first cases of measles in this outbreak were reported in April in the village of Makabvepi near the border with Mozambique. Cephas Fonte, health officer for Mutasa County, said that while county health workers were alerted to the arrival of measles, the first children to die were buried quickly and the Their deaths are not reported. The dead children came from families belonging to the Johane Marange Apostolic Church; After the group held a large Easter service, and then a Passover in July that drew worshipers across the country, measles spread throughout Zimbabwe.

The group openly opposes vaccination. It represents a powerful voting block and is closely associated with President Emmerson Mnangagwawho attended the Passover gathering.

At the end of 2020, the Department of Health and Child Care acknowledged that Covid had falsified the vaccination campaign, but a measles catch-up campaign targeting children from birth to 5 years of age only began in January. before, when the number of reported deaths began to rise. Major international health authorities are supporting that campaign, but will not speak to The New York Times about the record because the topic is considered politically sensitive.

Monica Mutsvangwa, Zimbabwe’s Information Minister, said she believes most Protestant families want their children vaccinated.

“Contrary to the usual protest, worshipers of the Apostolic Church in Manicaland have come in large numbers to vaccinate against measles,” she said. “However, the process was slow at first. And still some religious groups continue to resist. A lot of advocacy and work with the leaders of these groups is underway.”

Zimbabwean children are more susceptible to acute illness from measles because many of them are malnourished. Per capita income has fallen over the past four years, while food prices have risen due to a variety of factors, including grain shortages due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, drought and higher temperatures linked to climate change. Queen.

The last time Zimbabwe had a severe measles outbreak was in 2009, at the height of the hyperinflationary crisis. There have been more than 8,000 cases of the disease, and at least 500 children have died. Since then, the cash-strapped health system has struggled to boost vaccination rates.

A typhoid outbreak last year led to a 10-day campaign in which three million children were immunized against typhoid and polio and given vitamin A, reducing the severity of the disease. measles, but they are not vaccinated against the measles virus.

Viola Mombeyarara’s 20-month-old daughter, Anenyasha, died on September 4. Measles struck her three older children, and they recovered, but vomiting, diarrhea and fever left the baby dehydrated. serious.

Anenyasha was diagnosed with measles by a nurse at a clinic near her home in Muzarabani, in the north of the country, but her mother, a farmer who is a member of the Johane Marange church, believes there are other causes for the disease. her death.

Mombeyarara said: “We could see she was getting better when I brought her home, but witchcraft was used against us. “Why did she die, when others overcame measles? This is the work of evil.”

She says she is still hesitant about vaccinating her other children.

“I don’t know – the herbs we used cured other kids, so they worked,” she said, adding: “I still believe in our way. We cannot vaccinate.”

Jeffrey Moyo Reporting contributions from Harare, Zimbabwe.

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