26 September 2022
At a health center in Zimbabwe, a large group of women holding babies hurried to take their places on wooden seats. Separately, a health worker took a different group of worried mothers and their children through a back door and into another room, quickly closing the door behind them.
The women were all at the Mbare Polyclinic in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. They came to have their children vaccinated against measles during a deadly outbreak in the southern African country. But the women in the back room were getting their children vaccinated in secret because their religion bans them from using modern medicines.
Healthcare worker Lewis Foya said, "the measles outbreak saw children dying so they are now coming secretly and we are helping them."
More than 700 children have died from measles in Zimbabwe in an outbreak that began in April. Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said many were unvaccinated because of religious reasons.
The government has announced a vaccination drive but, as with COVID-19, some religious groups are strongly opposed to vaccines and have worked against the campaign.
Apostolic churches are among those that opposed modern medicine in Zimbabwe. Followers believe in prayer, holy water and other measures to treat disease or cure illnesses. Foya said the male leadership of the church means women have "no power to openly say no" to instructions. Children are then in danger.
The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, estimates that Apostolic churches have around 2.5 million followers in a country of 15 million. Some permit members to seek health care. Many still resist it.
A group of Apostolic church members who are open to modern medicine has been trying to bring change. They advise women to go against church rules if it means helping their children. Debra Mpofu is a member of the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust. She said, "We encourage women to get their children vaccinated, maybe at night. It's really necessary for the women to protect their children."
At the Mbare health center, one mother said people had learned from the misunderstanding about vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mother, Winnet Musiyarira, said, "A lot of people were misinformed during that COVID-19 period... a lot of people lost their lives. So when I heard about measles I just said I have to take my kids to hospital and get them vaccinated."
Mpofu of the Apostolic trust said some church groups would permit them to talk with their members and share information on vaccination. One church leader, James Katsande, also agreed to let his followers take their children to seek medical care. But there was a condition: They should come to the church's leaders for blessings before going to a health center.
Worldwide, the World Health Organization and UNICEF reported a 79 percent increase in measles in the first two months of 2022. The organizations warned that large outbreaks were possible. They said children and pregnant women are most at risk of severe disease from measles. But a vaccine prevents it easily.
I'm Jill Robbins.
Farai Mutsaka reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English.
Words in This Story
Apostolic – adj. belonging or relating to the early followers of Christ and to their teaching
church – n. religious center
encourage – v. to give someone the courage or confidence (to do something)
kids – n. (informal) children
blessing – n. a prayer asking God to look kindly upon the people who are present or the event that is taking place.