Measles is one of the most infectious viruses in the world, and can spread through close contact with an infected person, who coughs or sneezes infectious, airborne droplets that can infect others. A measles outbreak in Zimbabwe has been worsening over the past few months, and authorities have now said that 698 children have died from the viral illness. Over 6,000 measles cases have been confirmed by the health ministry since the outbreak began in April; it started in the eastern part of the country, and has now spread to all parts of the nation of about 15 million people.
It's been estimated that about 90 percent of a population has to be immunized to stop measles outbreaks. Measles can cause fever, coughing, and a skin rash. Many people recover, but it hits children and malnourished people especially hard, and their risk of death is much higher when they are not vaccinated.
Anti-vaxxination sentiment is high in Zimbabwe, where religious sects that are distrustful of modern medicine are popular. Some citizens are advocating for mandatory vaccination as the death toll rises. Others are encouraging the government to embark on mass vaccination campaigns that focus on those who are anti-vaccine because of their religion. The anti-vaxxination, Christian groups have encouraged their followers to avoid medicine and turn to self-proclaimed prophets if they experience health problems.
While measles vaccinations slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Zimbabwean government did continue to offer measles vaccines during that time.
After pandemic restrictions were lifted, a resumption of religious gatherings are thought to have spread measles to areas that had not previously been affected.
When the health ministry initially announced the measles outbreak about two weeks ago, they noted that of the 157 children that had died by that point, most were not vaccinated due to religious beliefs in their families.
Dr. Johannes Marisa, the president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association, told The Associated Press that due to vaccine hesitancy, "education may not be enough" and the government must consider other measures, including legislation that makes vaccines mandatory, so no one is able to refuse vaccination for their children, said Marisa.
UNICEF is aiding in the efforts to increase immunizations, and the Zimbabwean government has initiated efforts to vaccinate children between the ages of 6 months and 15 years. They are hoping that faith leaders will support this work.
UNICEF is also voicing concern about the estimated 25 million children around the world who missed routine immunizations against common diseases because of the pandemic.