By Nina Lex
The topic of immunization is often controversial – but in Malawi, it can be deadly as parents refuse their children access to vaccines.
Two months ago, the online publication, Malawi Voice, reported that 131 children from Nsanje, Malawi’s most southern district were vaccinated at gunpoint.
These families had originally fled to Mozambique to “protect” their children from the anti-measles vaccination, but when they returned home, medical officials and police tracked down the children and forcefully vaccinated them.
It was reported that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was behind the involuntary vaccinations. The foundation has been launching extensive campaigns to make sure all children are vaccinated against deadly diseases. When it comes to vaccines, Melinda Gates called Malawi one of the few countries “on track to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals.”
When contacted, the Gates Foundation and its partners in Malawi were unavailable for an interview.
In Malawi, the UN, NGOs and the Malawian Ministry of Health work together to ensure that all children are given shots for tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis and measles, as well as vitamins. The Health Ministry is currently carrying out a mass vaccination campaign, targeting six million vulnerable children under the age of 15 across Malawi.
“It is a requirement that all children are vaccinated, but it’s difficult to trace to see if a child has been vaccinated,” says David Chimwaza, a clinical officer at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre.
Measles is the most common disease outbreak in Malawi.
Worldwide, 164,000 people, mostly children under the age of 5, die from measles. Even though effective immunization costs less than $1 U.S. and has been available for 40 years.Furthermore, each year more than 1.7 million children die of vaccine preventable diseases, according to WHO.
“During an outbreak everyone has to be vaccinated,” explains Chimwaza. “Officials will go into homes to inspect children to check if they were vaccinated.”
However, in rural communities this can prove difficult without proper record keeping and lack of resources.
Similarly, vaccinations can be controversial in Canada, but for different reasons.
Some Canadian parents believe that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine can be linked to autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Although, most doctors and scientists agree the benefits of immunizations that protect against infectious diseases outweigh the rare side effects of vaccines.
In addition to health concerns, some Malawian families are against vaccinations and Western medicine because their religion forbids it, such as the Seventh Day Apostolic Church. Members of the Seventh Day Apostolic Church who do receive medical care are excommunicated from the church.
A Malawian father, who follows the Seventh Day Apostolic faith, was sentenced to two years in prison after refusing to let his three children receive the measles vaccine due to his religious belief. Police believe that one of his children died from the illness.
In nearby Zimbabwe, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a bulletin in 2009 stating that the majority of unvaccinated children belong to apostolic faith sects, 45 per cent and 23 per cent belong to the Pentecostal Church.
Muslim fundamentalists are also against immunization programs because vaccines can contain animals that have not been killed in accordance with ritual or can contain alcohol.
In some cases Muslim fundamentalists believe vaccines are used by the West to poison or sterilize followers of Islam.
“Usually because of religion, children do not receive vaccines. They have the idea that if you are sick God will help you - you don’t have to take drugs and medicines,” says Chimwaza.
As for the children who were vaccinated at gunpoint,he explains that both the measles outbreak and the need for its immediate containment were the cause for such an extreme response.
“The police had to vaccinate at gunpoint,” he says.“I think it was the first time that has happened.”