Mothers vaccinate children ‘at night and in secret’ as measles spreads in anti-vax sect

More than 700 children have died from measles in Zimbabwe, where the highly infectious disease has torn through unvaccinated congregations

Women holding their babies wait for a measles vaccine in Harare, after being told "to just sneak out" to save their children from measles, despite the disapproval of religious groups Credit: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

Mothers are defying their anti-vax church leaders and secretly sneak children into vaccination clinics, amid an alarming flare up of measles that has killed hundreds this year in Zimbabwe.

More than 700 children have died in the southern African nation, as the highly infectious virus has swept through church congregations which spurn jabs because of their religious beliefs.

Health officials backed by international agencies have set up a nationwide vaccination drive, but doctors are also encouraging women to get their children jabbed in secret if necessary.

“The advent of the measles outbreak saw children dying so they are now coming secretly and we are helping them,” Lewis Foya, a nurse at one clinic in Harare, told the Associated Press.

Around one-in-five people in Zimbabwe follow apostolic churches or sects, which often preach opposition towards Western medicine and reliance instead on faith healing and prayer. The congregations have become strongholds of anti-vaccination sentiment.

A member of the Mpofu's Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust educates members of the church about the importance of vaccinations in the Epworth region outside Harare Credit: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

Zimbabwe’s government has not released new figures on the toll from the outbreak for a fortnight. But the speed of the spread and the unusually high proportion of those infected who are dying has worried international health officials. Officials reported that 37 children died on September 1 alone.

‘It’s important to just sneak out’

Fear of the outbreak has been enough for mothers to visit clinics in secret, sometimes under the cover of night, without their husbands knowing.

“We encourage women to get their children vaccinated, maybe at night,” said Debra Mpofu, a member of the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust which encourages women to go against church rules to protect their children.

“It's really necessary for the women to protect their children so it's important for them to just sneak out.”

The risks of getting caught can be significant. Some mothers who have been found out by church leaders have been shamed and forbidden from taking part in church activities. Women are told that if they get their children vaccinated, they become unholy.

Measles is one of the world's most infectious diseases, and the virus causes fever, coughing and a tell-tale rash. Other complications can include blindness, brain swelling, severe diarrhoea and dehydration, ear infections, or severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia. Complications can be fatal.

A young girl smiles while being vaccinated against measles at a clinic in Harare, Zimbabwe Credit: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

Before mass vaccinations began in the 1960s, the disease flared up in occasional epidemics, killing an estimated 2.6 million children each year.

The Covid pandemic also disrupted Zimbabwe's measles vaccination programme

The World Health Organization warned earlier this year of an increase in measles in vulnerable countries due to Covid upheaval, with more than 40 countries postponing or suspending their regular immunisation campaigns. 

The United Nations children's body, Unicef, in July, warned about 25m children globally had missed out on routine immunizations against common childhood diseases as a result.

Tonderai Kasu, health director for the municipality of Chitungwiza, told the Xinhua news agency that two years of lockdowns had contributed to the outbreak.

“We went through a number of national lockdowns during the last two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, and what that did was it created a situation whereby the parents and the caregivers were not able to easily bring the children for vaccination,” he said.

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