UNICEF says it is "deeply concerned" after Zimbabwe's health ministry confirmed that nearly 700 children have died from the latest outbreak of measles. A vaccine campaign is underway but faces resistance from anti-vaccine religious groups.
Zimbabwe's measles outbreak has claimed the lives of 698 children since it started in April, the southern African country's health ministry announced at the weekend.
Thirty-seven of the deaths occurred on a single day on 1 September and 6,291 cases had been registered by 4 September.
The latest figures are more than four times the number of deaths announced about two weeks ago when the ministry said 157 children, most of whom were unvaccinated, had succumbed to the disease.
Children aged between six months and 15 years are those most affected, especially those from religious sects who do not believe in vaccination, the country's information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said recently.
The government has embarked on a mass vaccination campaign and is reaching out to faith leaders to garner support and awareness, she added.
UNICEF, the UN's children’s agency, says it is "deeply concerned” with the number of cases and deaths among children and is helping the government to combat the outbreak through immunisation programmes.
French medical non-profit MSF (Doctors without Borders) tweeted that "no child should die of measles".
Call for mandatory vaccination
Dr. Johannes Marisa, the president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association, said the government should do more, and target anti-vaccine religious groups in particular.
“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 told AP news agency on Monday.
He urged the government to “consider enacting legislation that makes vaccination against killer diseases such as measles mandatory".
Zimbabwe continued vaccinating children against measles even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but the drive has been hampered by religious groups that tell their members to rely on self-proclaimed prophets for healing.
Church gatherings that have resumed following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions have “led to the spread of measles to previously unaffected areas,” said the health ministry in a statement last week.
Measles is among the most infectious diseases in the world and mostly spreads in the air by coughing, sneezing or close contact.
Symptoms include high fever, conjunctivitis and skin rash.
Scientists estimate that more than 90 percent of the population needs to be immunised to prevent outbreaks of the disease.
In July, UNICEF said about 25 million children worldwide had missed out on routine immunisations against common childhood diseases, calling it a “red alert” for child health.