CHILDREN are dying of measles in a remote part of eastern Zimbabwe, where a religious sect insists on using only holy water to treat the contagious disease.
Thirty people, many children, have already died, according to reports. Parents are locking sick children in huts or whisking them into the hills to avoid detection by health officials working in the Nzvimbe area, 70km from the border city of Mutare.
The families are members of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church. The church's leaders do not allow vaccination or allow followers to seek medical treatment.
Officials fear the death toll from measles in Nzvimbe could be much higher because the Vapostori – as they're known locally – are "fast-tracking" burials, according to one report. Many are dying at home.
Announcing the outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said at the weekend at least 340 cases of measles had already been recorded in several districts.
"We are frustrated as this is mainly because of people who have denied their children vaccination," WHO head in Zimbabwe Custodia Mandlhate said.
Village chief Chokore Matide says he's sent out a "squad" to try to locate at least ten critically ill members of the sect who've disappeared. The "squad" has already wrested nine children from their families, and got them treated. One is only a year old.
In southern Africa measles normally kills about 10 per cent of cases but it is much worse when combined with malnutrition. Food has been readily available in supermarkets since the formation of a unity government between president Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in February.
But high costs and poverty in rural areas mean many still go hungry: Unicef says more than one-third of Zimbabwean children display signs of stunted growth because of inadequate nutrition.