HARARE, Zimbabwe – The death toll from a measles outbreak in Zimbabwe has risen to nearly 700 children, the country’s health ministry has said.
Some are calling for the enactment of legislation making vaccination compulsory in a country where anti-modern medicine religious sects dominate large swaths of the population of 15 million.
The southern African country’s health ministry announced over the weekend that 698 children have died of measles since the outbreak began in April.
The ministry said 37 of the deaths occurred in a single day on September 1. The Health Ministry said it had registered 6,291 cases as of September 4.
The latest figures are more than four times the death toll announced about two weeks ago when the ministry said 157 children, most of whom were unvaccinated due to their families’ religious beliefs, had succumbed to the disease .
Dr Johannes Marisa, president of the Association of Private Medical and Dental Practitioners of Zimbabwe, told The Associated Press on Monday that the government should step up an ongoing mass vaccination campaign and embark on targeted outreach programs in especially religious anti-vaccine groups.
“Due to resistance, education may not be enough, so the government should also consider using coercive measures to ensure no one is allowed to refuse their children’s vaccinations,” Marisa said. . He urged the government to “consider enacting legislation making vaccination against deadly diseases such as measles compulsory”.
UNICEF said on Monday it was “deeply concerned” about the number of cases and deaths of children from measles. The agency said it was helping the government fight the outbreak through vaccination programs.
The measles outbreak was first reported in the eastern province of Manicaland in early April and has since spread to all parts of the country.
Many deaths are among unvaccinated children, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said in August.
Zimbabwe’s Cabinet invoked a law used to respond to disasters to deal with the outbreak.
The government has launched a mass vaccination campaign targeting children aged 6 months to 15 years and is urging traditional and religious leaders to support this campaign.
Zimbabwe has continued to vaccinate children against measles even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but the campaign has been hampered by religious groups who preach against vaccines.
Christian sects are against modern medicine and tell their members to trust self-proclaimed prophets for healing.
Religious gatherings that resumed after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions have “led to the spread of measles in previously unaffected areas,” the health ministry said in a statement last week.
Measles is one of the most infectious diseases in the world and is mainly spread through the air by coughing, sneezing or close contact.
Symptoms include cough, fever and rash, while the risk of severe measles or death from complications is high in unvaccinated children.
Epidemics in unvaccinated and malnourished populations have been known to kill thousands. Scientists estimate that more than 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated to prevent measles outbreaks.
The World Health Organization warned in April of an increase in measles in vulnerable countries following a disruption of services due to COVID-19.
In July, the UN children’s agency UNICEF said around 25 million children worldwide had missed routine vaccinations against common childhood illnesses, calling it a “red alert”. for the health of children.