Harare, Zimbabwe (ENInews) It is “clinic day” at a shrine in a suburb in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where members of an apostolic sect conduct prayers and a woman sitting in a queue rocks a baby groaning in pain, awaiting her turn to consult the healer.
“Apparently, the illness is caused by some bad spirits,” said Esnath Chiwira after seeing the healer who heads one of the many sects that have proliferated in Zimbabwe in recent years.
In many African countries, such groups have been formed by local Christians who broke away from mainline churches such as the Methodist or Anglican churches. They are called apostolic sects since the leaders call themselves apostles and the group is usually named after its leader.
Members are prohibited from seeking treatment in hospitals or taking conventional medicine when they fall ill. “The healer said my child will be fine if I continue bringing him here and washing him with the holy water that the healer gave me,” Chiwira said.
She has lost three children before they turned 5 but vowed she will never have any of her children vaccinated against common childhood diseases under a government program for free medical service for children under 5.
“If I take my children to the clinic or to a doctor, the faith healer will find out using divine powers and I will be exposed at church,” she said.
The radical sects believe conventional medicine is evil. Members who seek modern medical care risk punishment from church leaders including suspension or excommunication.
Health authorities say these beliefs are stalling vaccination campaigns to reduce the pediatric mortality rate.
“As health experts, we are failing to penetrate into the apostolic sects because there is no law that makes immunization mandatory,” Dr. Steven Karima, a government medical officer, recently told journalists.
“We tried engaging members of the sects at one point but so far it has not yielded any results. Children who are not immunized are a danger to the community because they can readily transmit vaccine-preventable diseases.”
A nurse at a rural hospital east of the capital said female members shun prenatal care offered free at government health centers. “We are encouraging pregnant women in the area to come early for bookings under our prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission campaign,” Sister Yvonne Nhewede said at the launch of a campaign to reduce the incidence of parent-to-child-transmission of HIV.
“But we are having problems with members of the apostolic sects some of whom don’t even come for prenatal bookings. This has negatively impacted on the prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission campaign,” she said.
According to the World Bank, the mortality rate in Zimbabwe in 2010 for children under 5 was 80 per 1,000 live births, compared to 2.6 per 1,000 live births in Singapore.
Zimbabwe’s government runs free vaccination campaigns against diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria and polio. In some cases, members of the sects go into hiding when vaccination teams visit their areas.