An unchecked measles epidemic is on the rampage in the beleaguered south African nation of Zimbabwe.
The epidemic, which began in September 2009, has been abetted by Christian religious sects that shun vaccination and a badly degraded health system that has fallen down on once-exemplary immunization efforts.
Measles has spread to all 10 Zimbabwean provinces, with 90 percent of districts affected. The official count is 2,000 cases and about 200 deaths, "but this is likely to represent a gross underestimate," says Dr. Peter Salama, chief of the UNICEF mission in Zimbabwe.
Salama says the epidemic began in two Apostolic religious sects last September. Leaders of the sects oppose vaccination and counsel prayer and natural remedies instead of Western medicine.
"But many women now know children who have died," Salama says. "So the mothers are quite willing to accept vaccination once it's explained to them."
Last week, Zimbabwean Health Minister Henry Madzorera called the measles epidemic out-of-control. It was the first high-level acknowledgement of the worsening situation.
He said an exodus of doctors and nurses has crippled immunization programs. Last year Zimbabwe, a nation of about 12 million, had a raging cholera epidemic, with 100,000 cases and thousands of deaths. A decade of political strife and astronomical inflation rates have eroded all government programs.
Zimbabwe's immunization programs were once among the best in Africa, but now, he says, "estimated coverage for measles is well below 70 percent, so there's no herd immunity — no effect of vaccination in decreasing the ability of the disease to spread."
Experts say measles is so contagious that more than 95 percent of a population needs to be immunized in order to stop chains of transmission.
"I think it is accurate to say measles in now out-of-control in Zimbabwe," Salama re-affirmed in a telephone interview.
Zimbabwe, with the help of UNICEF and the World Health Organization, is planning a concerted measles vaccination campaign for May. Organizers hope to reach teenagers as well as young children — the usual vaccination targets. But Salama says the necessary $8.5 million in funding has not yet been found.