Government set to clash with vapostori over measles vaccination campaign

Mutare, Zimbabwe - Madzibaba Gandiwa, a member of an apostolic sect in Zimbabwe's eastern Marange district, is a strict follower of his religious beliefs that is against western medicine and local traditional remedies. (Pictured: Health Minister Henry Madzorera calling for stiffer laws to force child vaccinations)

He believes a government immunisation campaign to curb an outbreak of measles, which has claimed the lives of at least 200 children, is a ploy to reduce the population of his growing sect, which does not believe in modern birth control methods.

"At first the government people came with pills, saying they wanted women to bear fewer children," Gandiwa said, referring to government's national campaigns on family planning.

"We rejected that, so they now want to kill the children. I think they want to kill the children with their injections. I have heard that some children who have been injected have died. I think they want to make us few because they say mapositori have too many children," Gandiwa said.

"The government can do anything. They can arrest me or even kill me. What I will not do is to submit to a human being. I listen only to God," Gandiwa vowed.


The influential leader said those with children who had been diagnosed with measles or had died from the disease, were sinners who should confess their sins to God so they can be spared from them the plague.

Members of the sect keep a vigilant watch for health officers and hide their children in mountains when teams from the Health Ministry come to the village to immunise children against measles and other child killer diseases.

As a result children of sect members form the majority of causalities of the measles outbreak.

Stiffer laws

Health minister Henry Madzorera expressed concern at the sect members' behaviour.

"There has been avoidance of use of health services by the communities for several reasons, including religious groups that prevent children and women from being treated and allow just men and leaders to be seen (by health professionals) when sick," Madzorera said.

Madzore has called for laws to make it compulsory for all children to be immunised.

The government and the religious sects are set to clash with sect members such as Gandiwa unwilling to embrace both conventional and traditional medicine.

(Subhead) Secret meetings

Politicians have avoided openly criticising the sect members with some visiting sect leaders secretly in the hope of boosting their political fortunes.

Recently, the powerful Zanu (PF) secretaries for Administration and Women's Affairs, Didymus Mutasa and Oppah Muchinguri visited a sect leader in Marange, where some of the highest measles deaths have been recorded.

Addressing thousands of the vapostori sect members, the two politicians steered clear of the controversial subject of immunisation and instead blamed targeted sanctions imposed by western country for the country's problems.

The UNICEF representative in Zimbabwe, Peter Salama said: "It is true that measles in Zimbabwe is now out of control, given the fact that it is now in all parts of the country."


Salama said all children in Zimbabwe should now be considered to be at risk from the disease.

"This is symbolic of the breakdown of the infrastructure in Zimbabwe. This is similar to what happened during the outbreak of cholera in 2008," Salama said as he launched an $8.4 funding appeal to deal directly with the crisis.

Minister Madzorera revealed that measles had killed 183 people, mostly children under five by the end of March and afflicted another 1 843.

"The immunisation programme in Zimbabwe has, over the years, declined due to the economic hardships that we faced," Madzorera said.

In some areas, people have to travel for about 50 kilometres, to get to the nearest health facility. Many of the government facilities are poorly stocked and under-staffed.

Donor appeal

The UN was hoping to address some of the health problems through an international appeal to donors. However, donors are shunning Zimbabwe.

"Given the magnitude of the humanitarian needs in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in January 2010, it is inevitable that donors would focus on that emergency. Consequently, most CAP appeals outside Haiti have received limited funding and Zimbabwe is no exception," said Elizabeth Lwanga, the United Nations Humanitarian Co-ordinator.

"The US$378 million is the total funding request for humanitarian projects under Zimbabwe's consolidated appeal (CAP) for 2010, which covers various sectors, including Agriculture, Early recovery, Education, Food aid, Health, Logistics, Nutrition, Protection and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). Out of this broad appeal, the requirement for Food aid is US$58 million, which is 15% of the total.

By the last week of March 2010, the 2010 CAP had received US$12 million, representing 3.2% of the US$378 million required in total.

This amount is very low for this time of the year, compared to previous years and is of concern to the humanitarian community in Zimbabwe," said Lwanga.

Desperate wait

At Chitungwiza hospital last week, dozens of mothers clutching sick babies waited desperately for good news. Sorry, they were told by a nurse, there were no medicines to treat the sick or vaccines to immunise those still healthy.

Minister Madzorera told the media recently that a consignment of medicines from Europe had failed to arrive due to disruptions to air traffic caused by the Iceland volcano. As a result a national immunisation programme had been suspended for two weeks.

Coming so soon after a cholera pandemic that killed 4 000 and an AIDS epidemic that is claiming the lives of 3 000 people every week, the measles outbreak has become a major cause for alarm.