HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Thousands of women holding babies took their places on wooden benches at a clinic in Zimbabwe as a nurse led a particular group of anxious mothers and their babies through a back door and into a room another. The nurse quickly closed the door behind them.
All the women were at the Mbare Polyclinic in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, to vaccinate their children against measles amid a deadly outbreak in the southern African country. But the people taken to the back room were getting their children secretly vaccinated, and going against a religious doctrine that forbids them from using modern medicine.
“With the outbreak of measles children were dying so now they are coming secretly and we are helping them,” said Lewis Foya, a nurse at the clinic.
More than 700 children have died of measles in Zimbabwe in an outbreak first reported in April. Many were unvaccinated for religious reasons, said Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa.
The government has announced a vaccination campaign but, as with COVID-19, some religious groups are firmly against vaccines and have blocked the campaign.
Apostolic groups that blend traditional beliefs into Pentecostal doctrine are among the most skeptical of modern medicine in Zimbabwe. Instead, followers put their faith in prayer, holy water and other measures to prevent disease or cure ailments.
“They have the idea that if they get vaccinated, they become unholy and that’s the teaching they pass down to the women,” said Foya. He said that the patriarchy in the church means that women “have no power not to speak openly” to instructions. Children are at risk there.
Little detailed research has been done on Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe but studies by the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, estimate that it is the largest denomination with around 2.5 million followers in a country of 15 million. Some allow members to seek health care. Many are still resistant.
So to save their children, some mothers visit clinics in secret, sometimes under the cover of night and without their husbands knowing. A group of Apostolic church members who are open to modern medicine are trying to change the church’s attitude, but they also advise women to go against church rules if it means helping their children.
“We encourage women to vaccinate their children, maybe at night,” said Debra Mpofu, a member of the Apostolic Women’s Empowerment Trust. “It is absolutely necessary for the women to protect their children so it is important for them to sneak out.”
Confidentiality is necessary because members found to have visited health care centers are shamed and banned from participating in church activities.
The World Health Organization warned in April of an increase in measles in vulnerable countries due to the outbreak of COVID-19, with more than 40 countries postponing or suspending their regular immunization campaigns. In July, UNICEF said that around 25 million children worldwide had missed out on routine immunizations against common childhood diseases, calling it a “red alert” for child health.
Globally, WHO and UNICEF reported a 79% spike in measles in the first two months of 2022 alone and warned of the potential for major outbreaks. Children and pregnant women are most at risk of serious illness from measles, which is one of the most contagious and vaccine-preventable diseases. More than 95% of measles deaths occur in developing countries.
The Zimbabwean outbreak was first reported in the eastern province of Manicaland after a church meeting and has spread across the country. The government, with the support of UNICEF, the WHO and other non-governmental organizations, has embarked on a vaccination campaign aimed at millions of children.
At the Mbare clinic, one mother said people learned from the vaccine hesitancy that prevailed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people were misinformed during that COVID-19 period because they were told that there will be side effects when you get vaccinated,” said the mother, Winnet Musiyarira. “So because a lot of people lost their lives it was important for everyone to take it seriously. So when I heard about the measles I said I have to take my children to the hospital and get the vaccine.”
Musiyarira said she was not a member of a religious group. Some women who wear matching white skullcaps to indicate that they are part of an Apostolic church and who were at the Mbare clinic to receive a secret vaccination for their children refused to speak to the Associated Press for fear of being dismissed by leaders church.
Apostolic groups are wary of outsiders.
In a remote area of the impoverished Epworth region outside Harare, communities of white-robed Apostles recently gathered outdoors, as is their tradition, to worship. Some knelt before self-proclaimed prophets as a man removed ashes from a fireplace and placed them in a plastic bag to take home to use to cure illness.
It is one of the many congregations contacted by the Mpofu Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust. This time, and after intense negotiations, Mpofu and her team were allowed to speak to the communities and distribute vaccination leaflets. The leader of the church, James Katsande, agreed to allow his followers to bring their children to clinics.
But there was a condition: They should contact the prophets of the church to be blessed before going to a clinic.
“First we have to protect them with the Holy Spirit to cast out any demons and bad luck,” said Katsande, a tall man wearing white robes and a white scarf with a cross on it. “We are still the first point of contact,” he said.