Govt ropes in uniformed forces as measles outbreak ravages reclusive apostolic sect members’ children
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THE silence that pervades Madya, a small village ward in Chivi, Masvingo province, seems to narrate dark tales unfolding in the secluded area.
Rickety homesteads typical of all rural settings in Zimbabwe dominate the mountainous terrain.
The shabby looking homesteads are hidden below mountains as if the occupants intend to conceal themselves from the outside world.
Their fields have failed, and women already pregnant while still nursing crawling babies, try to eke out a living from picking the little they can out of the parched fields.
Zimbabwe is home a litany of apostolic sects and the majority of residents in this area are members of a hitherto unreported sect.
Male members have up to 15 wives each, who are not allowed to seek medical attention and literally live detached from the rest of the country let alone the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic came, the world grappled but this section of the society still is blissfully ignorant to the menace beyond their mountains.
There is no family planning and no vaccination against communicable diseases that are prevalent among children.
While traditional leaders have tried to force the sect members to abide by the laws of the land in relation to medical issues, they seem to have lost the battle after getting the retort “we will only listen to the President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) or his Deputy (Constantino Chiwenga).
Apparently, they also boast of the country’s constitution which they say gives them the right of religion, a situation that has left traditional leaders as well health-workers in limbo.
Meanwhile child mortality is per capita probably the highest in the country particularly following reports of the outbreak of measles in the country.
According to Amnesty International, measles killed a total of 750 children under the age of five in Zimbabwe last year.
During the outbreak, it was carnage in Chivi and Mwenezi as revealed during a media tour organised by the Ministry of Health and United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef).
Reports by village health workers paint a dark picture of pain and indiscriminate death of children for lack of medical attention that is readily available.
It sounds unrealistic but children in this area are dying like flies.
Fresh graves, visibly of children line up most if not all of the homesteads in this area.
As alluded to in the bible, the apostolic sect members are multiplying their descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.
But it is heart wrenching to note how these descendants are just dying and they claim it is the will of God.
One informant, Dorica Mavindidze, a village health worker reportedly escaped death by a whisker as members of the apostolic sect accused her of “selling them out”.
Mavindidze operates in three problem villages including Bvuchete, Madya and Zirumbe.
While doing her door-to-door visits as she pledged to do when she started volunteering in 2012, Mavindidze got disturbed after realising that four children she knew to be active and playful had suddenly become paralysed.
This was during the time the government had confirmed the outbreak of measles in August 2022.
“Their symptoms were synonymous with that of measles. I realised I had to do something immediately,” Mavindidze said.
The owner of that homestead has 15 wives and 42 children.
Her heroism saved scores of children.
“I went to visit the homestead the following day and I found out that the family had hidden the four children I had seen earlier.
“It troubled me, I couldn’t wait for another day because I knew the worst could happen,” she narrated.
She said there were two fresh graves at the homestead confirming that two had passed on. She was heart-broken.
In her anguish she confronted the family over the deaths. The response almost cost her life as sect members turned on her with axes.
“I was chased with an axe. They said I had sold them out to hospital authorities.
“They took their children to another village but a health worker from that area also flushed them out,” said the health worker.
It reportedly took the army to force sect members to get their children to get vaccinated at Maparanyanga village.
Mavindidze added: “Another family lost six children. They were exhibiting polio symptoms, they were coughing. They could no longer walk.
“To divert our attention, when these children died, they were buried in other areas, their maternal grandparents’ homes including Mvuma and Chivhu. The children died after a short illness.”
“There is another family. The man has four wives and five children have died. In another one, two children died. These people have no respect for authority including village heads and chiefs.”
Traditional leaders were told that mortuaries were developed because people die so such they should not be shocked to see their children dying.
Vangai Chipangura, a Ministry of Health Community Health Worker attached to Chivi District Hospital Health, confirmed the developments.
He said last August in Ward 15 Madya area there received an update that there was an outbreak.
“We got a report that some children had been infected by measles. We went and found the children sleeping. We also realised there were two fresh graves. A team from the police and DDC was set up to accompany health workers for fear they would be attacked.
He said they were also accompanied by anti-riot officers.
“When we arrived the mothers attempted to flee, we then educated them but we could not immunise their children because children who were at home looked fine,” Vangai.
However, some of the sect members are now appreciating the importance of vaccination among other medical issues.
They now secretly get help from village health workers in their area through engagement and intervention of the government in partnership with Unicef. The initiative is funded by the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) while Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET)is the implementing partner.
This has helped in ending avoidable deaths and progress for many members of the sect.
Sifiso Moyo (not her real name) explained how the relationship with village health workers has helped her.
“Now I can access family planning. Before I never had a chance to rest, either I was breastfeeding or pregnant all the time,” she said.
“I have also managed to save my children from measles.
“When we came back from our church’s annual meeting, there was an outbreak and a lot of children died and I witnessed this at our surgeries.
“We were told to confess after our children got sick. We were told that coke cures measles and that margarine cures polio.
“If you are HIV positive they said you are cursed and should be chased from the church.
Village health workers and nurses now have bases where they secretly meet with these women who are willing to get medical services.
At the bases, they offer education, scaling, vaccination and family planning among other services. _*NewZimbabwe*_