BY VALENTINE MAPONGA The re-emergence of measles-related deaths is a public health emergency that calls for the government to come up with a clear strategy to curb medieval diseases that affect all citizens in accordance with the law.
Recently, the country woke up to the shocking news that more than 150 children had succumbed to measles.
What was more shocking was that the disease was spreading to other parts of the country following church gatherings that had happened over the Heroes’ and Defence Forces holidays.
The measles outbreak, according to Health and Child Care ministry was first reported in April, this year, in Mutasa district of Manicaland.
As of August 15 2022, the cumulative figures from across the country has risen to 2 056 cases and 157 deaths.
Manicaland has constituted the highest number of cases (1 270) and 122 deaths.
These are the last figures to be made public by the government.
The government pointed out that most reported cases were among children aged six months to 15 years from apostolic sects, who are not vaccinated against measles due to religious beliefs.
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Growing up, I remember very well when several teams of health officials would visit our school in rural Gutu for regular immunisation programmes.
I also remember some of my classmates who would vehemently refuse to be vaccinated because their parents had reservations.
The immunisation programmes would continue despite the objections of others whom, I would later learn were from the apostolic sects. That’s no longer the case today.
Despite rapidly increasing measles immunisation coverage around the country over the years, the disease remains endemic, and regular outbreaks occur.
Because of low vaccination rates, measles is back and appears to be spreading in several parts of the country.
Other vaccine-preventable diseases will also remerge unless we take urgent steps to reverse this tragic trend.
This is a public health emergency and there should be an urgent call to action across the country for those whose children are unvaccinated to have them inoculated now.
Globally, millions of children have missed their immunisations over the past two years, a drop that the United Nations has called the “largest backslide in childhood vaccination in a generation.”
Community Working Group on Health director Itai Rusike said even though a safe and cost effective vaccine is available for measles, it is “very sad that Zimbabwe is grappling with measles outbreak that unfortunately has claimed lives”.
“In 21st century, we do not expect a country like Zimbabwe to be grappling with medieval diseases such as measles.
“This now shows that all the gains that the country had achieved over the years in its vaccination and immunisation programmes are now being eroded,” said Rusike
The good news, according to health experts, is that the measles vaccines are at least 97% effective at preventing the disease.
These vaccines are protective for many years — probably a lifetime.
The bad news is that there are some communities that refuse to be vaccinated based on their religious and traditional beliefs.
New data, released in July this year by Unicef and the World Health Organisation, showed that average global childhood coverage for vaccines developed for 11 key diseases had fallen from 71% in 2019 to 68% in 2021, marking the first time in over 30 years that the metric had fallen.
Much of this can be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic-related disturbances in health-care services.
I also worry about the menacing effect of vaccine disinformation and that backlash to Covid restrictions has worsened trust in public health.
Moreover, most parents of young children never experienced the terror of measles first hand and might not appreciate the importance of preventing the disease.
In response to the re-emergence of measles the government has invoked Civil Protection Unit Act to deal with the emergency, and the Ministry of Health and Child Care is on the ground carrying out an intensive vaccination programme.
Cabinet has also directed the Ministry of Health and Child Care to engage traditional and faith leaders for their support on the vaccination programme.
Cabinet resolved as follows: a) that the National Supplementary Vaccination Programme be upscaled before schools open for the third term of 2022 targeting the six to 15-year age group.
In order to decisively deal with the issue of religious and traditional objectors to the vaccine, Health and Child Care minister Constantino Chiwenga simply has to refer to the constitution of Zimbabwe and the existing Public Health Act.
The constitution does make provision for constitutional supremacy.
Supremacy of the constitution’ is listed in section 3(1)(a) as the first founding value or principle on which Zimbabwe is founded.
In addition, section 2(1) specifically states that: “This constitution is the supreme law of Zimbabwe and any law, practice, custom or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid to the extent of the inconsistency”.
Section 2(2) goes on to specify who is bound by the constitution.
The effect is that constitutional obligations are binding on every person and not just the organs of the state.
The same Zimbabwean constitution under section 76 guarantees the Right to Health to its citizens.
Again, under regional human rights instruments, which Zimbabwe is party to, the Right to Health is also underscored.
Zimbabwe is a signatory and state party to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) wherein article 16 expresses the Right to Health.
Right now, the government must divert resources previously directed to the Covid-19 to other neglected areas, especially childhood immunisation programmes.
There is a need to bring religious and traditional leaders of objectors on board, in the fight against all medieval diseases, so that they can appreciate why it is necessary to get their children vaccinated.