Law To Deal With Stubborn Apostolic Faith Sect

Budiriro was the epi-centre of a devastating cholera epidemic in 2008. Just a stone throw away from Chirevo’s house is the local clinic and Budiriro One shopping centre.

Chirevo, who made international headlines in 2008, when he lost five children to the cholera epidemic, is hardly concerned that sewage flows through his doorstep. Even the occasional postings on an electricity pole next to his house reminding him of the cholera epidemic and advising residents on the need to vaccinate children against measels, does not appear to move him.

Despite the loss of his children and the more than 4 000 people who died during the cholera outbreak, he vows he will never seek treatment because his religion is against the practise. He is a member of the Apostolic Faith Church and believes the power of God heals any disease. He said he believed the death of his children was the will of God.

But a new law to be introduced by the government will put an end to Chirevo’s thinking. The Ministry of Health and Child Welfare is preparing a law making child medical care obligatory in a effort to put a stop to the Apostolic Faith practise of sacrificing the health of children.

“There has been avoidance of the use of health services by the communities for several reasons, including religious groups that refuse children and women to be treated and allow just men or leaders to be seen when sick,” said Madzorera.

The law comes at a time when the country, already burdened by numerous other diseases on top of a collapsed health system, is faced with a deadly measles epidemic, which is spreading rapidly.

According to the United Nations statistics, 200 people have so far died of measles while hundreds others have been infected. Most of these are from families belonging to Apostolic Faith religious sect.

Over the past two years, Zimbabwe has been battling to recover from a decade long economic slump defined by among other things a collapsed health sector, which in 2008 saw the closure of some of the country’s major hospitals. Hundreds of skilled health workers left the country in search of greener pastures in neighbouring countries.

Apart from the health sector, schools were closed due to water shortages and a strike by teachers for better wages.

“Douglas Gwatidzo, chairman of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights says the law, “is long overdue given the public health risks of refusing vaccination on religious or other grounds.”

The new law will put Zimbabwe in line with regional practise making it a crime for parents or guardians for denying their children medical
treatment as is the case in South Africa and Botswana.

“We have countries in the region, like South Africa and Botswana, where there are such laws that result in prosecution if parents or guardians deny children medication which have worked,” said Madzorera.
“We are thinking of having such laws to replace our current weak laws.”

The government has raised the red alarm to donors looking for US$ 8 million to eradicate the raging measles epidemic. It however, remains worried with the continuing practise of the Apostolic Faith groups, which hide their children whenever the health teams go around the country carrying out vaccination programmes. Often, these Apostolic Sects disappear with their families for days on end whenever they hear of visits by the Ministry of Health officials.

Some health activists blame the government for playing soft with these religious groups that refuse their children access to medical health facilities.  Refusing to vaccinate their children is not their only crime. They also still practise old-age traditions of marrying out under-age girls as well as taking more than one wife all in the name of religion. To make matters worse, some of them prefer not to educate girls because they believe their place is at home, looking after their children and husbands.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has of late, tried to use his charm to show the way. He attended church services of the apostles and took time to explain to them why it was in their best interests to embrace medical practices. The Minister of health has also been making rounds trying hard to reach out to them, but whatever the case might be, the coming of the  new law will forever change the lives of children born out of  these religious sects.