HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Dozens of women carrying babies rushed to take their places on wooden benches at a clinic in Zimbabwe while a nurse took a separate group of anxious mothers and their babies through a back door into another room. The nurse quickly closed the door behind them.
The women were all at the Mbari clinic in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, to vaccinate their children against measles amid an outbreak of a deadly disease in the South African country. But those brought into the back room were secretly vaccinating their children, in defiance of religious orthodoxy that forbids them from using modern medicines.
“The outbreak of measles has killed the children, so now they are coming in secretly and we are helping them,” said Louis Foya, a nurse at the clinic.
More than 700 children died of measles in Zimbabwe in the first outbreak of the disease in April. Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said many were not vaccinated for religious reasons.
The government has announced a vaccination campaign, but as with COVID-19, some religious groups are strongly against vaccinations and have stymied the campaign.
Apostolic groups that inculcate traditional Pentecostal beliefs are among the most skeptical of modern medicine in Zimbabwe. Instead, followers place their trust in prayer, holy water, and other measures to ward off disease or cure ailments.
“They have a belief that if they get vaccinated, they become unholy, so that’s the belief they pass on to women,” Foya said. He said that the church’s patriarchal system means that women “do not have the power to say no in public” to the instructions. Then the children are at risk.
There has been little detailed research on the apostolic churches in Zimbabwe, but studies by the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, estimate that it is the largest denomination with nearly 2.5 million followers in a country of 15 million people. Some allow members to seek health care. Many are still resisting.
In order to save their children, some mothers visit clinics secretly, sometimes under cover of night and without the knowledge of their husbands. A group of Apostolic Church members who are open to modern medicine are trying to change church attitudes, but are also advising women to break church rules if it means helping their children.
“We encourage women to have their children vaccinated, perhaps at night,” said Debra Mpofu, a member of the Apostolic Women’s Empowerment Fund. “It’s really essential that women protect their children, so it’s important for them to sneak outside.”
Confidentiality is necessary because members found to have visited health care centers are shamed and prohibited from participating in church activities.
The World Health Organization warned in April of an increase in measles infection rates in countries at risk from coronavirus disruptions, with more than 40 countries postponing or suspending regular immunization campaigns. In July, UNICEF said about 25 million children worldwide had missed out on routine immunizations against common childhood diseases, calling it a “red alert” for child health.
Globally, the World Health Organization and UNICEF have reported a 79% rise in measles incidence in the first two months of 2022 alone and have warned of the potential for widespread outbreaks. Children and pregnant women are most at risk of getting seriously ill from measles, which is among the most contagious and easily preventable with a vaccine. More than 95% of measles deaths occur in developing countries.
The Zimbabwean outbreak was first reported in the eastern province of Manicaland after church gatherings and spread across the country. The government, with support from UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other NGOs, has launched a vaccination campaign targeting millions of children.
At the Mbar clinic, one mother said people have learned from the prevalent vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people have been misled during the Covid-19 period because they have been told that when you get vaccinated there will be after effects,” said mother Winette Musiarera. “That’s why so many people lost their lives and it was important for everyone to take this seriously. So when I heard about measles, I just said I have to take my kids to the hospital and get them vaccinated.”
Musiyarira said she was not a member of a religious group. Some of the women, who wore matching white veils to indicate they were part of an apostolic church and were at the Mbar clinic to secretly vaccinate their children, refused to speak to the Associated Press for fear of reprisals from church leaders.
Apostolic groups are notorious for being wary of outsiders.
In a dense area in the impoverished Epworth region outside Harare, apostolic devotees in white robes have gathered outdoors recently, as is their tradition, to worship. Some knelt before the so-called prophets while a man took ashes from the fireplace and put them in a plastic bag to take home for use in treating illness.
It is one of the many congregations approached by the Apostolic Women’s Empowerment Fund in Mpofu. On this occasion, after intense negotiations, Mbovo and her team were allowed to address the worshipers and distribute vaccination leaflets. The church leader, James Katsandi, also agreed to allow his followers to take their children to clinics.
But there was a condition: they should approach the church prophets to be blessed before going to the clinic.
“We need to first protect them with the Holy Spirit to cast out any demons and misfortune,” said Katsandi, a tall man in white robes and a white veil with a cross on it. “We are still the first port of call,” he added.