Apostolic Sects Face Arrest

Harare, Zimbabwe - Government could soon invoke provisions of the Public Health Act to empower the Minister of Health and Child Welfare to enforce immunisation against child killer diseases among apostolic sect members after 10 more children were reported to have died from measles, bringing the death toll to 51 since November.

Police yesterday said they were also ready to assist public health authorities to deal with parents who are hiding their children to prevent them from being immunised.

Some members of various apostolic sects have resisted getting their children inoculated, citing religious beliefs.

The deaths have been among children whose parents belong to the sects.

Yesterday, Health and Child Welfare Deputy Minister Dr Douglas Mombeshora said: "We have spoken to some leaders of the sects, but some continue to object to public health regulations of immunising children forcing us to institute provisions of the same Act that empowers the minister to make the requirements mandatory because there is continued loss of lives."

It is understood that some members of the sects have been secretly taking their children for immunisation without their leaders' knowledge as measles -- which is highly contagious -- wreaks havoc.

Health regulations empower the Minister of Health to take whatever reasonable measures necessary to protect public health.

Police deputy chief spokesperson Chief Superintendent Oliver Mandipaka said it is not the police's mandate to force people to go for immunisation saying the police's duty is to help co-ordinators get into the communities.

"However, sometimes with Government programmes, co-ordinators may seek assistance from the police to be able to get into communities and convince people to participate in the programmes."

The 10 deaths reported yesterday were all recorded in Masvingo Province.

Masvingo provincial medical director Dr Robert Mudyiradima said: "A suspected measles outbreak has killed 10 people in the Murwira area in Bikita, about 10km from Nyika Growth Point. They are believed to belong to an apostolic sect."

He said the Health Ministry deployed a team of assessors on Tuesday in a bid to contain the disease.

The disease is suspected to have spread to children following a prayer meeting by the apostolic sect members' days before the outbreak.

Since the beginning of the year, 128 specimens have been tested for measles compared to 382 for the whole of 2009.

According to World Health Organisation, specimens received this year are slightly above a third of those received last year.

The number of positive measles cases since the beginning of the year is 50.

To date, 22 of Zimbabwe's 62 districts have reported measles outbreaks.

These are Bindura, Bubi, Buhera, Bulawayo, Centenary, Chegutu, Chirumhanzu, Chipinge, Gokwe South, Gutu, Harare (including Chitungwiza), Hwedza, Insiza, Kwekwe, Makoni, Makonde, Marondera, Mt Darwin, Mutare, Nyanga, Umzingwane and Zvishavane.

According to the Public Health Act children are immunised for measles at nine months of age.

Statistics released after the June Child Health Days revealed that 45 percent of the Johane Marange apostolic sect had refused to have their children vaccinated against measles and polio during the campaign.

Measles is a highly contagious viral respiratory infection that causes high fever, skin rash, running nose, watery eyes and a cough. The disease mainly affects children under the age of five.

Measles in unvaccinated children is serious and can cause severe diarrhoea leading to dehydration, blindness in those with inadequate vitamin A intake, inflammation of the middle ear, brain damage and death due to pneumonia.

The Public Health Act states that children are vaccinated against BCG at birth.

At three, four and five months they are vaccinated for pentavelant one, two and three respectively.

The pentavelant injection is a combination for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus (DPT), hepatitis B and polio.

At nine months children are vaccinated against measles and at 18 months they are required to be immunised against DPT and polio again.

The last immunisation schedule is at five years where children are vaccinated against DPT and polio.

Government, however, carries out nationwide immunisation for those parents who miss these routine inoculations.