‘Rapidly accelerating’ measles outbreak kills almost 700 children

A measles outbreak in Zimbabwe has now killed nearly 700 children, in a rapidly accelerating and “deeply concerning” flare-up of the highly contagious disease. 

Health officials told the Telegraph they were alarmed by both the speed of the spread and the high fatality rate of the outbreak, which has seen the recent death toll jump by dozens each day.

The flare-up of one of the world’s most infectious diseases has taken hold among church congregations that have rejected vaccinations for religious reasons.

Deaths had reached 698 by September 4, according to the nation’s health ministry, up from less than a quarter of that a fortnight earlier. Officials reported that 37 children died on September 1 alone. 

The outbreak is thought to be the worst for some time in the southern African nation of 15 million. The last outbreak 11 years ago was far less severe, health sources told the Telegraph.

Unicef said that in the worst affected eastern province of Manicaland, nearly one-in-10 of those getting the disease were dying. That rate is higher than in other recent African outbreaks.

The UN body said it was “deeply concerned with the numbers of cases and deaths among children due to a measles outbreak in Zimbabwe”.

Cases first emerged in April and the virus has since spread quickly among congregations of Zimbabwe’s Apostolic churches, who have long rejected vaccinations and modern medicine.

Faith healers and anti-vaxxers

Dr Johannes Marisa, the president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association, told The Associated Press that the government may need to force children to be vaccinated.

He said: “Because of the resistance, education may not be enough so the government should also consider using coercive measures to ensure that no one is allowed to refuse vaccination for their children.”

He urged the government to “consider enacting legislation that makes vaccination against killer diseases such as measles mandatory”.

Zimbabwe’s Cabinet has already invoked a law used to respond to disasters to deal with the outbreak and has launched a mass vaccination campaign, which will target two million children under five years. Nationwide, the vaccination rate was around 85 per cent in 2020, having fallen back on previous years when it at times touched 95 per cent. 

The country’s Apostolic churches or sects are thought to be followed by around one-in-five of the population. Their teachings regularly include a potent mix of opposition towards Western medicine and belief in faith healing and prayer, meaning the congregations have become a stronghold of anti-vaccination sentiment.

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