Measles in nearly half of country's districts

A measles outbreak has hit 28 of Zimbabwe's 62 districts and is still spreading, but efforts to vaccinate people in some quarters is being hampered by religious convictions.

According to the latest World health Organisation (WHO) Epidemiological Bulletin, "Nearly 1,200 suspected cases were reported since the start of the outbreak in October 2009 ... 221 cases have been confirmed ... 50 community deaths have been reported."

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) as well as other organizations in the health sector have embarked on an intensive vaccination programme. "The campaign is targeting all children between the ages of six months and 14 years," UNICEF's Zimbabwe spokesperson, Micaela Marques de Sousa, told IRIN. In eastern Zimbabwe, in the Buhera district of Manicaland Province alone, more than 25,000 children had been vaccinated against measles.

"We are also embarking on door to door campaigns to emphasize the importance of vaccinating children," she said, although the strategy is likely to meet with stiff resistance among those who refuse vaccinations based on their religious beliefs.

"While we as UNICEF respect the faith of the apostolic churches, we have also been engaging them to understand the value of vaccination. We have been engaging communities on the importance of protecting the rights of the children and to ensure that they access health services. Even children who have been vaccinated in the past are being revaccinated because of the exposure to the measles outbreak."

A large-scale measles outbreak has occurred among family members of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church in the Nzvimbe area, about 70km from the city of Mutare, near the Mozambique border, according to local media reports. The church's elders do not allow vaccinations or permit followers to seek medical treatment, and prefer such measures as sprinkling holy water on the sick.

Religious convictions

The reports said 30 people belonging to the religious group, mainly children, had died from measles, although the number could be higher because of Vapostori – the practice of "fast-tracking" burials.

A senior official in Zimbabwe's ministry of health and child welfare, who declined to be identified, told IRIN: "We are working overtime to come up with strategies to ensure that the measles outbreak is contained. In an environment where some parents do not avail health programmes to their children, it then becomes difficult to contain the outbreak.

"That is why we are also working on regulations which will make it an offence for parents or guardians to deny children vaccination against killer diseases," the official said.

WHO describes measles as a highly contagious viral disease affecting mostly children, which can be effectively prevented by immunization. In Zimbabwe, children receive a first vaccination against measles at the age of nine months and second inoculation at 18 months.

Symptoms usually appear about 8 to 12 days after infection and include high fever, bloodshot eyes, and tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth. A rash also develops, starting on the face and upper neck and gradually spreading over the body. Measles cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries annually.