The congregations can be seen each Saturday throughout Zimbabwe as they worship outside, often under a tree or alongside a main road, in pristine white clothes.
The groups are part of Apostolic churches or sects, and there are thought to be as many as 3.5 million followers across the country – around one in five of the population.
But their teachings, which regularly include a potent mix of opposition towards Western medicine and belief in faith healing and prayer, mean the congregations have become a stronghold of anti-vaccination sentiment.
That combination is now having fatal consequences, health officials have warned. A spiralling measles outbreak has killed more than 150 children nationwide, almost all of them unvaccinated because of their parents’ religious opposition.
Cases started to rise in Zimbabwe’s eastern Manicaland province in early April but have accelerated more recently, with around 2,000 children now affected. In the past week the death toll has almost doubled.
“Church gatherings attended by people from different provinces with unknown vaccination status led to the spread of measles to previously unaffected areas,” said Jasper Chimedza, Zimbabwe’s health secretary.
Rejection of medicines and hospitals
The churches have been blamed for previous measles outbreaks and public health officials have made many attempts to get them to ease their doctrines.
Ezra Chitando, regional co-ordinator of the World Council of Churches in Harare, who has researched the country's many Apostolic and Zionist churches, said they taught that Western medicine was an inheritance from the colonial era.
“Apostolics, especially those in the informal sector, reject Western medicine, including hospitals, because black Africans resisted colonialism and racism and say they reject oppression in all spheres of life,” he told the Telegraph.
Church leaders are always men, and many members have polygamous marriages. The churches have influence even among the educated middle classes, he said.
“Some of the representatives in industry and commerce, who have had higher education, including those who are medical doctors, may have parents who are members of the Apostolic churches. Some in this category do accept Western medicine.”
He added that some Apostolics will point to hospital mortuaries as proof against medicine and vaccinations. “They will say: ‘You see people are dying in the hospitals and they are vaccinated. So we won’t be vaccinated’. There is this sense of fatalism that ‘whatever we do, if God wills it, so it shall be’.”
Leaders of some Apostolic churches did in 2021 encourage followers to get Covid-19 jabs. But in 2017, health researchers who interviewed followers said they were largely afraid of punishment by church leaders if they had children vaccinated.
“Apostolic parents and caregivers are generally fearful of sanctions from religious leaders if they vaccinate children under their care, and therefore rely on prayers,” the researchers concluded.
Zimbabwe’s latest measles outbreak was first reported in the eastern Manicaland province in early April and has since spread to all parts of the country. More than 2,000 cases have been reported and nearly all the dead had not been vaccinated.
The government says it will launch a mass vaccination campaign targeting children aged six months to 15 years old and it will ask traditional and faith leaders to back the drive, although it has warned that it is already under pressure because of an exodus of poorly paid doctors and nurses.
Measles is among the most infectious diseases in the world and outbreaks in unvaccinated and malnourished populations have been known to kill thousands. The virus is so contagious that epidemiologists estimate more than 90 per cent of the population needs to be immunised to prevent outbreaks.
Large flare-ups have also been seen recently in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. Unicef, the United Nations children's branch, earlier this year said the pandemic had disrupted immunisation programmes and disease surveillance, leading to a spike in cases.
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