20 Nov 2010

Conflict between parental and children's rights at center of Zimbabwean debate over forced vaccinations of sect children

The Herald - Zimbabwe February 1, 2010

Who Should Decide for Children?

Roselyne Sachiti | OPINION

Harare — HERE is a poser for the debate in the ongoing constitution-making process, should the Government forcibly immunise children whose parents have pledged faith in the omnipotence of God over modern medicine or should the parents' choice be left to override the child's right to live?

This writer poses these questions because of the raging debate over the death of 54 children from measles mainly among communities belonging to apostolic sects that have gone to the extent of hiding their children in the mountains to shield them from health authorities.

"The country is currently experiencing a growing measles outbreak in 22 out of 66 districts and a flagging immunisation coverage, which is now as low as 49 percent for children between 12 to 23 months," explained Unicef's country representative Dr Peter Salama.

According to Dr Salama, 98 percent of the children dying are from apostolic sects scattered throughout Zimbabwe.

Dr Salama added that the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare and the apostolic churches should both make decisions that are in the best interests of children.

"To force members of the Johane Marange church to vaccinate their children against measles is a complicated issue as there is a conflict of two issues, that of religion and another of access to health.

"In this situation, it is clear that enforcing the Act is acting in the best interest of the child. It is sad that so far, 54 children have died of measles," he said while referring to countrywide measles fatalities since the beginning of the year.

He added that every day, 100 children under the age of five are dying largely due to preventable diseases.

"There is need for effective community and social mobilisation.

"Dialogue should be sustained with various religious objectors and indeed there is need for a legal and constitutional framework to protect children from dying from easily preventable diseases such as measles," he added.

Deputy Health Minister, Dr Douglas Mombeshora last week said they spoke to some leaders of apostolic sects on the issue of immunisation.

However, some continue to object to public health regulations of immunising children forcing the ministry to consider invoking provisions of the Public Health Act that empower the Minister to make the requirements mandatory because of the continued loss of life.

Madzimai Monica Chikura (54) of the Johane Marange Apostolic Sect in Buhera said she is against the use of vaccines and scoffed at the ongoing drive by the ministry to immunise all children in the area despite their parents' objections.

"I have nine children and four grandchildren who have never been vaccinated, but are all alive and healthy.

"My children have never been to a clinic and I gave them okra and bathed them with a slimy wild plant popularly known as ruredzo when they had measles.

"It would take two weeks to heal, but none of my children died.

"Children whose parents do not have faith in our religion and use other medicines die because of their double standards.

"Hospitals use medicines to cure other people but for some of us, holy water is our tablet," she explained.

Zimbabwe, like many other countries has developed policies to ensure that it safeguards the rights of its citizens and the Public Health Act states that children should be immunised for measles at nine months of age.

The same Act also states that children are vaccinated against polio at birth.

National Coordinator of the Zimbabwe Expanded Programme on Immunisation in the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, Mrs Mary Kamupota, said a legal and constitutional framework that enables all children to be vaccinated regardless of religion should be established.

"Because of the recent deaths of children among the apostolic faith sects, there is need for the establishment of a legal and constitutional framework that protects kids," she said.

Justice for Children Trust Programme director, Mr Caleb Mutandwa said he was happy that the State had finally decided to invoke provisions of the Public Health Act.

While parents have their constitutional right to follow a religion of their choice, children would not have consented to the religion and should not be deprived their right to health.

However, a legal practitioner, Advocate Thabani Mpofu is of another view and said he hopes that the Minister of Health and Child Welfare is no longer thinking of carrying out his threat and "act unconstitutionally" in the process.

"To the apostolic sect, the prohibition against seeking medical assistance is inseparable with its religious effort.

"The State has no right to look into, and worse still try to direct and dictate matters of faith and religion.

"Of course, the minister makes a fundamental mistake of thinking that children are being killed by measles," said Advocate Mpofu.

He added that as far as children are concerned, their parents in their wisdom and legitimate exercise of faith have come to the conclusion that God is their ultimate medical institution.

"If God does not hear prayers and save them that should not cause their parents to be forced to abandon their religion.

"There is at any rate no assurance that modern medical science will protect the children against death.

"I am not in any way belittling the right to life and would do everything in my power if it were possible to prevent those deaths that occurred.

"I am sorry to those that lost life but the fact of the matter is that those deaths must not lead the Government into breaching fundamental rights without which the right to life itself does not make sense," he said.

The country's Constitution provides for every citizen's right to health and religious freedom and practice and protects against the breach of the same by another party.

But it also explicitly says that if anything is done in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health and for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons, it does not necessarily breach the enjoyment of the above-mentioned rights.

It is therefore important that as some of the apostolic faith sects enjoy their right to religion, others have argued that they should at the same time not infringe their children's constitutional right to life.

This conflict of religion versus scientific health care makes a poser on Millennium Development Goal Number 4 which seeks to reduce child mortality by two thirds between 1990 and 2015.

While Goal Number 4 seeks to prevent deaths of children who are under five years old, all these efforts could come to nothing should the apostolic faith sects and health officials continue bickering.

This article was found at:



Unvaccinated children of Apostolic sect in Zimbabwe continue to needlessly die from measles

Measles outbreak in Zimbabwe reveals Apostolic sects endangering children by refusing to vaccinate them

Zimbabwe sect that shuns vaccinations is hiding sick members from health authorities in midst of measles epidemic

Zimbabwe police assist with door-to-door vaccination after sect children die from measles

Zimbabwe health officials insist they will not use law to compel sect members to vaccinate kids in midst of deadly measles outbreak

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