Malawi: Vaccination Foiled by Divine Intervention

Lilongwe — Medical staff struggle to vaccinate frightened children clinging to their parents, as an armed policeman stands guard. Police earlier rounded up the families from Chitanje village and marched them to the Chankhungu clinic a few kilometres away.

The parents refuse to help the medical officers with the frightened children, who are screaming and thrashing about resisting the injection.

More than 52,000 people have caught measles in Malawi since January according to the country's director of preventive health services, Storn Kabuluzi. Up to 166 have died.

Measles had been suppressed across Southern Africa in recent years thanks to vaccination campaigns. UNICEF reports a worrying increase in cases in 2010. Nearly 50,000 children in 14 countries have been afflicted with the disease, the majority in Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi.

In Zambia, 80 deaths have been recorded.

The United Nations Children's Fund attributes the resurgence of the disease to gaps in vaccination programmes caused by insufficient financial commitments from governments and international donors. Groups that refuse vaccination for their children also contribute to the problem.

Up to 2.4 million children in East and Southern Africa were not reached by health authorities in 2009.

In response, intensive vaccination campaigns have been launched in most countries.

Malawi's health ministry is carrying out a mass vaccination campaign, targeting six million children under the age of 15 who are especially vulnerable to the disease.

"The mass immunisation campaign is the biggest we have had in recent years and it will cost up to $4.2 million," said Kabuluzi.

But not everyone has welcomed the campaign - some religious groups are refusing to take part.

James Malili, 45, a father of three children aged four, six and eight looks dejected as his children are pried loose from his grasp at Chankhungu to be vaccinated.

"It is against my church's doctrine to go to hospital and receive any kind of medication, but government is now forcing us to sin by bullying us into having our children vaccinated," Malili told IPS. He belongs to the Church of Zion, which, he explains, preaches on calling on God's help when a believer is ill.

"We believe in the divine intervention. We know that God will heal us and that no man has power over any illness. We believe that our children will be protected by God and not vaccines," said Malili.

But by the time police moved into Chitanje Village where Malili comes from in mid-July, 19 people had died in the first two weeks that month alone. The Zion church had rounded up all the people who were attacked by measles and put them in a hiding place to prevent them from seeking medical care, according to police spokesman for Dowa, Kondwani Kandiado.

"We believe that some of the people would have ended up going to the hospital to seek medical care and have their children vaccinated if they were not prevented by the church leaders," said Kandiado.

Police raided the village and arrested the leader of the church, Bishop Lumbani Amos and three other church elders. They face long prison sentences. Kandiado explained that the four have been charged with child neglect under Section 165 of the Penal Code.

"Twelve church members, including the bishop's own son, died while in hiding. We managed to rescue seven people from the hiding site and took them to hospital where they received medical attention," said Kandiado.

The resistance the Malawian authorities have encountered similar resistance to vaccination elsewhere.

In June, over 100 members of the Seventh Day Apostolic Church barricaded themselves in an abandoned building for a week at Namaona Village in Malawi's southern district of Mulanje. There too, police were called upon to remove the church members from their hiding place and forced them to have their children vaccinated. The sick were taken to hospital.

The Seventh Day Apostolic Church doctrine is that anyone who seeks medical care will be excommunicated, according to church member Emily Kalimalima.

"The Seventh Day Apostolic Church is the only true church and I wouldn't want to be excommunicated. I don't want to burn in hell," said Kalimalima, a mother of two children, aged seven and nine.

"I am not going to have them vaccinated and nobody is going to force me to go against my belief," she vowed.

Kalimalima explained that nobody from her church seeks medical care for any illness including serious ones such as tuberculosis, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Malawi's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has condemned religious groups that stop their members from seeking medical care. At a public function on July 14, Mutharika described the doctrines of such churches as "heinous, unbiblical and tantamount to murder.

"You are breaking the law if you allow your own children to die because you are barring them from getting vaccinated," Mutharika warned.

He called on members of the religious groups in question to be "level-headed and rational" while respecting the rights of children. "Don't kill children in the name of religion," said Mutharika.

At the moment, the measles outbreak is yet to be contained - cases have been reported in boarding schools in Malawi's northern city of Mzuzu,where the district health office issued a statement to the effect that 13 students are being treated.

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