Zimbabwe conducts emergency measles campaign
The country embarked on emergency measles vaccination and re-vaccination for more than two million children under five years.
- 20 October 2022
- 5 min read
- by Derick Matsengarwodzi
To the Zimbabwean health system, news of a measles outbreak in Mutasa district in eastern Manicaland registered as an alarming setback. In recent years, the country had been making inroads in the fight against the highly contagious virus, but now the bug was rapidly gaining ground.
“We have been using the Social and Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) model within Apostolic religious communities to create a mindset shift with regards to accessing modern health services.”
For Violet Hoto, a 22-year-old mother of one from Chitungwiza, more than 200km away from the outbreak’s epicentre, it was a source of a more personal kind of anxiety. The week before news of the epidemic reached her, Hoto had attended a village gathering, and she was scared that her child had been exposed to the deadly infection.
So far, the toddler seemed well. But Hoto knew her three-year-old belonged to the most vulnerable age group, and she wanted expert guidance.
“When I heard of the measles outbreak, I immediately went to the clinic for advice,” Violet says, her voice filled with both sadness and triumph. “I was told that many children had been infected in the country, but my child is safe – for now.” The virus, she knew, was still spreading.
Clinic health staff informed Hoto that a measles vaccination campaign had been planned in her area, and encouraged her to keep an eye out for official announcements. Meantime, she was to stay watchful “for any symptoms like rash, cough and high fever”.
“When I heard of the vaccination campaign, I was excited,” Hoto recalls. The campaign promised a conclusive escape route from the worry she’d been living with. If her child got immunised, she thought, “My child would live a longer, healthier life.”
From its launch, the vaccination campaign – conducted by the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health and its partners – was in a life-or-death race with a fast-spreading virus. By September 6, 702,000 children aged between 6 months and 59 months had been immunised, just shy of a third of the targeted 2.3 million. But since April, the epidemic bug had been travelling along invisible corridors of low immunity, infecting 6,551 people, and killing, by the first week of September, a total of 704 children.
Measles is one of the most contagious pathogens known to medicine, with an ‘R nought’ number – which denotes the average number of people a case will infect in a non-immune setting – of 18. Its outcomes – which can include death, blindness and deafness – are worse amid poverty, where children are more often poorly nourished.
In short, it isn’t a threat to take lightly. But after the forced disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hampered routine immunisation programmes all over the world, many countries have seen cases spiking; sometimes, outbreaks of the fast-moving virus are the first clear indicator that the immunisation safety-net has thinned.
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In Zimbabwe, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa told a cabinet post-briefing: “it has been noted that most cases have not received vaccination to protect against measles. Government has invoked the Civil Protection Unit Act to deal with this emergency.”
On the day the campaign kicked off in Chitungwiza, Hoto packed her child’s clinic bag – immunisation card, nappies, and a strategic snack – strapped the little girl safely to her back, and headed out towards the voice booming out of the loudspeaker. “All the mothers with children between 6 to 59 months, please come for the measles vaccination,” it bellowed, guiding her to a mobile vaccination team’s outpost near the local shops.
Fortunately, the queue moved swiftly and soon, it was Hoto’s daughter’s turn. The nurse calmed the toddler, while the mother hugged her child firmly to comfort her. The needle pricked, the child cried out, and then it was over. Once outside, Hoto dug in her bag for the conciliatory snack.
“I knew I had made the right choice to safeguard my daughter’s future,” she said.
As of 8 September, nearly 22,000 children in Hoto’s area had been inoculated. By 2 October, some 85% of the targeted children had been reached nationwide.
Measles is a preventable tragedy, and COVID-19 isn’t the only factor determining vaccination coverage. In Zimbabwe, religion has a big impact on vaccination decisions with parents often consulting religious leaders before accepting vaccines. Dialogue with religious and community leaders is crucial to save children’s lives.
For healthcare workers like Rejoice Mutasa, a member of the measles mobile vaccination team, vaccine scepticism has been part of the challenge.
“Sometimes, we had to entice mothers to get their children vaccinated. We often remind mothers and parents who refuse their children to get vaccinated that these are the same vaccines we use from the child’s birth,” she says.
Supporting frontline workers like Mutasa, organisations like the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) engage with religious women and faith leaders to increase vaccine uptake.
“We have been using the Social and Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) model within Apostolic religious communities to create a mindset shift with regards to accessing modern health services,” reveals Tendayi Gudo, the AWET National Director.
During the recent measles campaign, AWET was out in the streets, making themselves heard. “Since the outbreak of measles in April, we have been holding dialogues with women, men and religious leaders from the Apostolic community and raising awareness on the importance of vaccination against measles and other vaccinations deemed necessary for the protection of children,” explains Gudo.
If some worried parents take a bit of convincing, Hoto isn’t in their number. “From what I have seen, and heard, I am not going to take any chances with my daughter’s health,” she says, tenderly caressing her toddler’s freshly jabbed arm.