HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — The death toll from a measles outbreak in Zimbabwe has risen to nearly 700 children, the country’s health ministry said.
Some are calling for legislation to make vaccination compulsory in a country where religious sects against modern medicine dominate large sections of the population of 15 million people.
The South African country’s health ministry announced over the weekend that 698 children have died from measles since the outbreak began in April.
The ministry said 37 of the deaths occurred in one day on September 1. The health ministry said it had recorded 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 because of their family’s religious beliefs, succumbed to the disease.
Dr. Johannes Marissa, president of the Zimbabwe Medical and Dental Association, told The Associated Press on Monday that the government should scale up an ongoing mass vaccination campaign and launch awareness programs specifically targeting anti-vaccine religious groups.
“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,” Marisa said. He urged the government “to consider legislation making vaccination against deadly diseases such as measles compulsory”.
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 of the deaths involved children who were not vaccinated, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said in August.
Zimbabwe’s cabinet invoked a law used to deal with disasters to deal with the outbreak.
The government has launched a mass vaccination campaign targeting children between the ages of 6 months and 15 years and is enlisting traditional and religious leaders to support the effort.
Zimbabwe continued to vaccinate children against measles even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but the effort was hampered by anti-vaccine religious groups.
Christian sects are against modern medicine and tell their members to rely on self-styled prophets for healing.
Church gatherings that resumed after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions “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 contagious diseases in the world and is spread mainly through the air by coughing, sneezing or close contact.
Symptoms include cough, fever and skin rash, and the risk of severe measles or death from complications is high in unvaccinated children.
Outbreaks in unvaccinated and malnourished populations are known to kill thousands. Scientists estimate that more than 90% of the population should be vaccinated to prevent measles outbreaks.
The World Health Organization warned in April of an increase in measles in vulnerable countries as a result of service disruptions due to COVID-19.
In July, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, said about 25 million children worldwide missed out on routine vaccinations against common childhood diseases, calling it a “red alert” for child health.