HARARE, Zimbabwe — Dozens of women with babies rushed to their seats on wooden benches at a Zimbabwe clinic while a nurse led a separate group of concerned mothers and their children through a back door to another room. The nurse quickly closed the door behind them.
The women were all at Mbare Polyclinic in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare to have their children vaccinated against measles amid a deadly outbreak in the South African country. But those brought into the back room secretly had their children vaccinated, defying religious doctrine that forbids them from using modern medicines.
“When the measles outbreak started, children were dying, so now they come in secretly and we help them,” said Lewis Foya, a nurse at the clinic.
More than 700 children have died from measles in Zimbabwe in an outbreak first reported in April. Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said many were not vaccinated for religious reasons.
The government has announced a vaccination campaign, but as with COVID-19, some religious groups have been adamant against vaccines and have obstructed the campaign.
Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs into Pentecostal doctrine are among the most skeptical of modern medicine in Zimbabwe. Instead, followers rely on prayer, holy water, and other measures to ward off or cure disease.
“They believe that if they get vaccinated they become unholy, so they pass that lesson on to women,” Foya said. He said patriarchy in the church means women “have no power to openly say no” to direction. Children are then at risk.
There is little detailed research on Zimbabwe’s apostolic churches, but studies by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, estimate that it is the largest denomination with around 2.5 million adherents in a country of 15 million. Some allow members to receive medical care. Many are still resistant.
To save their children, some mothers secretly visit clinics, sometimes under cover of night and unbeknownst to their husbands. A group of apostolic church members who are open to modern medicine have tried to change the church’s attitude, but have also advised women to break church rules if it means helping their children.
“We encourage women to get their children vaccinated, maybe at night,” said Debra Mpofu, a member of the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust. “It’s really necessary for the women to protect their children, so it’s important that they just sneak out.”
The secrecy is necessary because members who have attended health centers are shamed and banned from participating in church activities.
The World Health Organization warned in April of an increase in measles in at-risk countries due to COVID-19 disruptions, with more than 40 countries postponing or suspending their regular vaccination campaigns. In July, UNICEF said about 25 million children worldwide missed routine vaccinations against common childhood diseases, calling it a “red alert” for children’s health.
Globally, WHO and UNICEF reported a 79% increase in measles in the first two months of 2022 alone, warning of the potential for large outbreaks. Children and pregnant women are most at risk of serious measles disease, which is among the most contagious diseases and easily preventable with a vaccine. More than 95% of measles deaths occur in developing countries.
The outbreak in Zimbabwe was first reported after Church meetings in the eastern province of Manicaland and has spread across the country. The government, with support from UNICEF, WHO and other NGOs, has launched a vaccination campaign targeting millions of children.
At Mbare Clinic, a mother said people have learned from the vaccine hesitancy that has prevailed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many people have been misinformed during this COVID-19 time because they have been told that if you get vaccinated there will be after-effects,” said the mother, Winnet Musiyarira. “A lot of people lost their lives because of this and it was important that everyone took it seriously. So when I heard about measles, I just said I need to take my kids to the hospital and get them vaccinated.”
Musiyarira said she is not a member of any religious group. Some women, wearing matching white headscarves to indicate they are part of an apostolic church and who were at Mbare Clinic to have their children vaccinated, secretly refused to speak to The Associated Press for fear reprisals from church leaders.
Apostolic groups are notoriously suspicious of outsiders.
In a bush area in the impoverished Epworth region outside of Harare, apostolic parishioners in white robes recently gathered, as is their tradition, to pray. Some knelt before self-proclaimed prophets as a man scooped ashes from a chimney and placed them in a plastic bag to take home to cure illnesses.
It is one of many churches that Mpofu’s Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust has reached out to. On this occasion, after intensive negotiations, Mpofu and her team were allowed to speak to those present and distribute vaccination slips. Church leader James Katsande also agreed to allow his followers to take their children to clinics.
But there was one condition: they should approach the prophets of the Church for blessings before going to a clinic.
“First we must protect them with the Holy Spirit to cast out all demons and bad luck,” said Katsande, a tall man in white robes and a white headscarf with a cross on it. “We remain the first port of call,” he added.