A measles outbreak has killed 80 children in Zimbabwe since April, the ministry of health said, blaming church sect gatherings for the surge.

In a statement seen by Reuters Sunday, the ministry said the outbreak had now spread nationwide, with a case fatality rate of 6.9%.

Health Secretary Jasper Chimedza said that as of Thursday, 1,036 suspected cases and 125 confirmed cases had been reported since the outbreak, with Manicaland in eastern Zimbabwe accounting for most of the infections.

“The ministry of health and childcare wishes to inform the public that the ongoing outbreak of measles which was first reported on 10th of April has since spread nationwide following church gatherings,” Chimedza said in a statement.

“These gathering which were attended by people from different provinces of the country with unknown vaccination status led to the spread of measles to previously unaffected areas.”

Manicaland, the second-most populous province, had 356 cases and 45 deaths, Chimedza said.

Most reported cases are among children aged between six months and 15 from religious sects who are not vaccinated against measles due to religious beliefs, he added.

Bishop Andby Makuru, leader of Johane Masowe apostolic sect, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Zimbabwe, some apostolic church sects forbid their followers from taking vaccinations or any medical treatment. The churches attract millions of followers with their promises to heal illnesses and deliver people from poverty.

With a low vaccination rate and in some cases, no record keeping, the government has resolved to start a mass vaccination campaign in areas where the outbreak was recorded.

The measles outbreak is expected to strain an ailing health sector already blighted by lack of medication and intermittent strikes by health workers. 

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