'I JOINED a secret base so that I could save my children from dying. The church that I go to does not allow vaccination of children. Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) really helped me, especially on how to take care of my children. All my children received BCG, polio and measles vaccinations,” says Anna Kanyati (not real name) from Gwamatenga area in Mwenezi district, Masvingo province.
A devout member of the apostolic sect with four children, Kanyati (22) had to secretly seek healthcare services to avoid confrontation with her husband and the church.
Her church strictly forbids vaccinating children or even visiting clinics for medical check-ups.
The sect is among some of the most difficult religious groups to penetrate on health issues, which has seen some women who fellowship there joining secret health groups they call bases that deal with women and children’s health.
Through AWET, an organisation that engages religious women and faith leaders to increase immunisation uptake, many like Kanyati have found solace and access to invaluable education on vaccination against measles and polio.
“I am happy that I joined the secret base. At church, we are given water to heal these illnesses, which only if we knew that they required vaccination, children would not be sickly every month. At church, I ended up confessing to things I didn’t know and some I didn’t do out of fear, yet all the answers were through vaccinating my children. Sometimes we were told to take margarine and coke as medication for ailments, but the children’s condition would not change,” Kanyati confides in NewsDay.
“At the secret base, I am given family planning pills and they have taught me how they are taken. The family planning has helped me to nurse my child who is now eight months old, something that is rare in my church.
“My husband and I are still young and already we have four young children. It is difficult to nurse so many little children at once and this has led to some apostolic women neglecting themselves in terms of cleanliness. We have no time as the children need attention from one mother. AWET really helped me. They also taught us the importance of having toilets, washing of hands and maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” she adds.
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Village health facilitator Shenet Shoko says she works with AWET in her quest to make sure children are immunised early so that they do not die from preventable diseases.
“I am not a member of the apostolic sect, but my main goal is to make sure women bring children for vaccination. I work with the apostolic sect women and their husbands are a big impediment to children getting vaccinated, mainly citing their right to freedom of worship. My main duty is to mobilise these women and make sure we stop these diseases,” Shoko explains.
“I was trained by the Ministry of Health and Child Care in 2019. I now work with 15 to 20 women at the secret base, where we are winning. We have taught apostolic sect women the importance of family planning. We have been holding dialogues with these women, from the apostolic sect community and raising awareness on the importance of vaccination against measles and other vaccinations deemed necessary for the protection of children. We tell them not to hide children, but to bring them for vaccinations that are free of charge.”
Chikava Lopi, a health teacher at Gwamatenga Primary School in Mwenezi, expressed gratitude to the Health ministry, Unicef, AWET and other stakeholders for training village health workers to uphold the health of both parents and children in their villages.
“Health workshops have helped us in this community. Working with trained health workers was an advantage to us. A lot of parents are now accepting the vaccination of children. Only a few have remained sceptical, especially religious parents who have denied their children vaccinations. We have told our people that if the government brings health programmes to our communities, we must quickly grasp and accept them for they are for our own benefit,” Chikava says.
Another village health worker, Patronella Guva of ward 6, who is also at Gwamatenga Primary School, narrates how they have managed to mobilise, educate and create awareness about measles vaccination in the apostolic sect community.
“Working with AWET and the Ministry of Health and Child Care, we have managed to preach at village meetings and those who have accepted vaccination for their children come secretly. In that way, we have managed to vaccinate children from the apostolic sects,” she says.
Village health workers have penetrated the hard-to-reach areas which has seen a lot of children getting vaccinated from measles, polio, malaria and other health cases.
In some cases, village health workers have resorted to seeking the intervention of security forces in order to get children immunised.
Dorica Mavindidze, a village health worker from Vuchete village in Chivi, narrates her ordeal in working with apostolic sects.
“The apostolic sect is a very difficult group to work with on issues to do with health. Since the outbreak of measles in this village, some children of apostolic sect members have died. The parents didn’t want their children to get vaccinated. They would run away or hide the children. In one family, six children died until some of the women decided to approach me and we secretly vaccinated the children. In one case, we had to get security forces’ intervention to get the children vaccinated”, Mavindidze says.
Augustus Chikwati, district nursing officer at Neshuro Hospital in Mwenezi, describes village health workers as the key entry point to a community, adding that their contributions cannot be downplayed.
“With the heavy exodus of health personnel for greener pastures, there is a shortage of staff in the country. Village health workers are very key and they are an entry point to a community. Whatever is happening in the village is reported by village health workers. Disease outbreaks, ART [anti-retroviral treatment] defaulters, malaria testing and minor cases in the villages are being reported by village health workers and the hospital will then take action,” he says.
“Health workers are the informers. Their work is not imposed by the Health ministry. They have volunteered to work with us and there is a change since we involved the community in health issues. One hundred households are being served by one village health worker.
“We are grateful to Unicef, which partnered us on the training of village health workers and procurement of vaccinations. There has been great change ever since we involved community health workers in fighting measles and polio.”
Measles and polio have killed so many children in Zimbabwe. Mutasa district in Manicaland province was the first district to report a measles outbreak in April 2022.
According to the Health ministry through the Disease Surveillance System, as of September 2022, a total of 6 034 suspected cases, 4 266 recoveries and 685 deaths were recorded since the onset of the outbreak and Manicaland had the highest case fatality rate.