A measles outbreak in Zimbabwe has now killed nearly 700 children, in a rapidly accelerating and “deeply concerning” flare-up of the highly contagious disease.
Health officials told the Telegraph they were alarmed by both the speed of its spread and the high death rate of the epidemic, which has seen the recent death toll rise by the dozen every day.
The flare-up of one of the most infectious diseases in the world has taken hold among church congregations that have refused vaccinations for religious reasons.
Deaths had reached 698 by September 4, according to the nation’s health ministry, up from less than a quarter a fortnight earlier. Officials said 37 children died on September 1 alone.
The outbreak is believed to be the worst for some time in the southern African nation of 15 million. The latest outbreak 11 years ago was far less serious, health sources said Telegraph.
Unicef said in the worst-affected eastern province of Manicaland, nearly one in 10 of those who contracted the disease were dying. This rate is higher than that of other recent African outbreaks.
The United Nations body said it was “deeply concerned about the number of cases and deaths among children due to a measles outbreak in Zimbabwe”.
The first cases emerged in April, and the virus has since spread rapidly among congregations of Zimbabwe’s apostolic churches, which have long rejected vaccinations and modern medicine.
Faith healers and anti-vaxxers
Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association, told The Associated Press that the government may need to force children to get vaccinated.
He said: “Due to the resistance, education may not be enough, so the government should also consider using coercive measures to ensure that no one can refuse vaccination for their children.”
He urged the government to “consider adopting legislation making vaccination against killer diseases such as measles mandatory”.
The Zimbabwean cabinet has already called for a law used to respond to disasters to cope with the epidemic and has launched a mass vaccination campaign, which will affect two million children under the age of five. Nationwide, the vaccination rate was around 85% in 2020, having reverted to previous years when it sometimes hit 95%.
The country’s churches or apostolic sects are thought to be followed by about one in five people. Their teachings regularly include a powerful mix of opposition to Western medicine and a belief in faith healing and prayer, meaning congregations have become a stronghold of anti-vaccination sentiment.
As the outbreak has worsened and the pressure has increased, some church leaders have appeared to shift positions in recent weeks and have urged followers to vaccinate their children.
The virus causes fever, cough, and a telltale rash, but in some cases it causes complications that can be fatal. Complications include blindness, swelling of the brain, severe diarrhea and dehydration, ear infections, or severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia.
It is one of the most contagious diseases in the world, with a reproduction rate of up to 18, compared to an R rate of between 2 and 3 for the original Covid strain.
Before mass vaccinations began in the 1960s, the disease flared up in occasional outbreaks, killing an estimated 2.6 million children each year.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 140,000 people died from measles in 2018, mostly children under the age of five, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. The virus is so contagious that over 90% of the population needs to be immunized to prevent outbreaks.
Protect yourself and your family by learning more Global health security