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Zim Moms Resort to Secret Measles Jabs

FILE: A child receives a measles vaccination jab at a clinic in Harare, Zimbabwe. Taken 9.6.2022

A vaccination drive is underway in Zimbabwe after hundreds of children died in a measles outbreak. But opposition from powerful religious groups means some mothers have to get their children jabbed in secret.

The Zimbabwe government has announced a vaccination drive but, as with COVID-19, some religious groups are stubbornly opposed to vaccines and have hindered the campaign.

While many mothers have rushed to the Mbare Polyclinic in Harare to get their children jabbed, some have to be smuggled into the facility in secret.

Eliese Mucheki, a mother, remarked "We heard this disease is killing a lot of children, that's why I am here, plus every time I hear of children vaccination programs I come because I am very responsible when it comes to my children's health."

She added "So I don't miss programs like these because I don't want my children to get sick with such types of diseases."

They are here in defiance of religious doctrine that forbids them from using modern medicines.

Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs into a Pentecostal doctrine are among the most sceptical of modern medicine in Zimbabwe. Followers instead put their faith in prayer, holy water and other measures to ward off disease or cure illnesses.

Nurse Lewis Foya remarked that "The religion itself is a major problem, because they've got a belief that if they get vaccinated they become unholy. So that's the doctrine that they hand down to the women. But ladies, since there are under the men, they have no power to say no."

"But the advent of the measles outbreak has shown that they need to be vaccinated because most of the children are dying, so they are now coming secretly and we are helping them," Foya added.

The secrecy is necessary because members found to have visited health care centers are shamed and forbidden from taking part in church activities.

Zimbabwe's outbreak was first reported in the eastern Manicaland Province following church gatherings and has spread across the country.

"I am here for the measles vaccination for my kids. I heard about the outbreak around Manicaland Province in Mutare and a lot kids lost their lives due to this outbreak. So I found it was very important for me to come with my kids here and get vaccinated," says Winnet Musiyarira, who says she is not a member of a church group.

A group of Apostolic church members who are open to modern medicine have been trying to change church attitudes, but also advise women to go against church rules if it means helping their children.

"As an organization we do encourage women to go and vaccinate their children secretly, maybe at night, because we have got some other churches - though they are apostolic - but they do not permit their children to get vaccinated," says Debra Mpofu, the Apostolic Women's Empowerment Trust manager.

After intense negotiations, Mpofu and her team have been allowed to address the congregants and distribute vaccination fliers.

The church leader, James Katsande, has also agreed to allow his followers to take their children to clinics.

But there is a condition: They should approach the church's prophets to be blessed before they go.

"First we need to protect them with the Holy Spirit to cast out demons and bad luck. We remain the first port of call," he says.

It's an uneasy truce between modern medicine and deeply held religious beliefs.