|© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2006/Elder|
|Irene Mwedziwendira holds her twins at a demonstration on the benefits of taking vitamin A in Harare, Zimbabwe.|
By James Elder
HARARE, Zimbabwe, 27 July 2006 – To rousing applause Irene Mwedziwendira steps forward with her twins at a demonstration on the benefits of taking vitamin A. At just under 160cm, she is not a tall woman, and her strides are small. But their meaning is massive. She is a member of one of Zimbabwe’s largest religious sects – the Apostolic – which bans immunization for children. Mrs. Mwedziwendira’s steps are nothing less than a leap of faith.
Last month’s nationwide measles and vitamin A health campaign in Zimbabwe targeted all Zimbabwean children under five, and reaching Zimbabwe’s Apostolic sect was particularly important. With more than 3.5 million members – 25 per cent of the population – the success or failure of a health campaign often hinges on them.
Doing things differently
Years of countrywide campaigns by Government and UNICEF – in addition to lobbying and liaising with traditional and religious leaders – are finally paying off, as more and more Apostolic women such as Mrs. Mwedziwendira are empowered to make their own decisions about immunization and vitamin A supplementation.
“Immunization saves lives,” says Mrs. Mwedziwendira confidently. “My first- and second-born children were not immunized or supplemented with vitamin A, and they were always sick. Some of my friends even lost their children because of the laws of our sect. But I decided to do things differently for the twins. I am happy, and they will be healthy.”
A public health triumph
Across impoverished rural Zimbabwe, women like Mrs. Mwedziwendira are the foot soldiers in a great unfolding public health triumph: the global push to slash the number of children who die from complications of measles and of vitamin A deficiency. They make up the majority of members on Zimbabwe’s village health committees, they preach the benefits of immunization and vitamin A supplementation, and they bring their friends to campaigns such as this one.
The current immunization and vitamin A supplementation campaign is part of Zimbabwe’s ongoing efforts to eradicate measles and maintain high levels of vitamin A coverage. Nearly $3 million has been spent on this campaign, with UNICEF contributing more than $1 million, a third of the total funds.
Led by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare supported by UNICEF, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Global Measles Initiative, the campaign targeted two million children with vitamin A capsules and vaccines to prevent measles. Supplementation with vitamin A improves the body’s mechanism to fight diseases, prevents nutritional blindness and reduces the risk of child death by as much as 23 per cent.
Eliminating the effects of vitamin A deficiency
“Zimbabwe has made substantial progress in reducing the number of children affected by measles – and has almost eliminated deaths due to measles,” said UNICEF Representative in Zimbabwe Dr. Festo Kavishe. “Zimbabwe has also eliminated the severe effects of vitamin A deficiency like night blindness and destruction of the cornea of the eye, which can lead to permanent blindness.
“But as in so many sectors in Zimbabwe, great gains of the past risk being severely eroded if we don’t sustain and scale up our health preventive actions. That’s what this campaign does – it supports a health system under great stress, and children under great threat.”
A bitter combination of crippling cost of living increases and soaring unemployment threaten to unravel entire sectors of Zimbabwe’s society. The country has the world’s fourth highest rate of HIV and the highest rises in child mortality on the planet.
It is the continued commitment of Zimbabwean communities and health workers that made this campaign possible. What is needed now is more investment in children both from inside and outside the country, more support for those on the ground who continue to defy immense hardship, a greater understanding of the situation in Zimbabwe, and certainly more women like Mrs. Mwedziwendira.