Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – A measles outbreak has killed more than 700 children and infected thousands more in Zimbabwe, highlighting the dangers of failing childhood vaccination campaigns around the world.

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 epidemic is the result of a combination of factors that threaten children’s health in many countries.

Routine immunization in Zimbabwe has declined significantly during the Covid-19 outbreak. Anxious parents stay away from health centers; Health care workers have been diverted from routine vaccination programs to the response to the Covid-19 outbreak. And school closings and long lockdowns have disrupted the usual outreach campaigns.

In July, the World Health Organization and UNICEF warned that there are millions of children, most of them in poor countries. They missed some or all childhood vaccinations. Due to covid lockdowns, armed conflicts and other obstacles. UN agencies described the situation as the biggest backlog in routine immunization in 30 years and warned that, combined with rapidly increasing malnutrition, the situation could put the lives of millions of children at risk.

Vaccination coverage in Zimbabwe had been declining every year since 2017 before the outbreak, as decades of political and economic crisis have crippled the public health system.

Zimbabwe’s health system is severely understaffed. Health care workers have moved to neighboring South Africa or high-income countries For jobs that pay less than the minimum wage in Zimbabwe and often not at all.

Twenty-five years ago, Zimbabwe had one of the highest vaccination coverage rates in sub-Saharan Africa, but vaccine hesitancy is rampant, exacerbated by influential churches that discourage vaccination and encourage members to rely on prayer and pastoral intercession. The Yuhan Maran Apostolic Church, which has hundreds of thousands of worshippers, is at the center of the measles outbreak.

Some apostolic and evangelical pastors have been opposing the vaccination saying that their prayers and holy stones are enough to protect the faithful and they have been threatening to expel women who take children to the clinic. The social media-fueled rhetoric, which some evangelical leaders have warned will bear the “mark of the beast,” has heightened opposition to Covid-19 vaccines. Reluctance spilled over into resistance to routine childhood vaccines.

A spokesperson for the Federal Ministry of Health said they are focusing on new efforts to vaccinate children.

Spokesman Donald Mujiri said: “The government has started a massive vaccination campaign by reaching out to faith leaders to gain support and awareness.” “Children between the ages of 6 months and 15 years are particularly vulnerable in religious sects that do not believe in vaccinations. The Ministry is committed to ensuring that no child dies of measles.

The first cases of measles in this outbreak were reported in April in the village of Makabvepi, near the border with Mozambique. Mutasa District Medical Officer, Dr. Cephas Fonte, said that when district health officers alerted to the outbreak of measles, the first dead children were quickly buried and their lives were not declared. The dead children are from families who are members of Yuhane Marange Apostolic Church. After the group held a large Easter celebration and an Easter celebration in July that drew worshipers from all over the country, measles broke out in Zimbabwe.

The group publicly opposes vaccination. It represents and is a powerful voting bloc. He is closely aligned with President Emmerson MnangagwaThose who attended the Passover.

Ministry of Health and Child Care In late 2020, they learned that Covid had hampered vaccination campaigns, but as the number of reported deaths rose, a measles campaign targeting children from infancy to 5 years of age was launched last month. Major international health agencies are supporting that campaign, but won’t speak to The New York Times on the record because of the politically sensitive nature of the issue.

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information, Monica Mutswanwa, said she believes most evangelical families want to vaccinate their children.

“Contrary to the usual opposition, worshipers of the Apostolic Church in Manicaland came out in large numbers for measles vaccination,” she said. However, the process was slow at first. Still, some religious groups continue to protest. A lot of mobilization and work is being done with the leaders of these groups.

Many Zimbabwean children are malnourished and vulnerable to measles. Per capita income has fallen in each of the past four years, and food prices have risen for a number of reasons, including grain shortages and droughts in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and extreme temperatures associated with climate change.

Zimbabwe’s last measles outbreak was in 2011. In 2009, it was at the height of hyperinflation. There were more than 8,000 cases, and at least 500 children died. The cash-starved health system has since struggled to increase vaccine coverage.

Despite a 10-day campaign against typhoid last year, three million children were given typhoid and polio vaccines and vitamin A, which reduces the severity of measles, but not the measles virus.

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

Anenyasha was diagnosed with measles by a nurse at a clinic near her family’s home in Muzarabani, in the north of the country, but her mother, a farmer who is a member of the Johan Marange Church, believes there were other causes of death.

“When I brought her home we could see that she was getting better, but witchcraft happened to us,” Ms Mombeyarara said. “Why did she die when others overcame measles? This is a work of evil.

She said she is still hesitant to vaccinate her other children.

“I don’t know—the herbs we used cured the other kids, so they work,” she said. We cannot vaccinate.

Jeffrey Moyo Reporting from Harare, Zimbabwe.

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