A landless woman has gone against stiff religious resistance to vaccines and medicines to save children, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Edna Chimtondo, 49, used to expel health workers from her home near Kasungu National Park until seven years ago when her pregnant daughter needed blood replenishment to give birth safely.
The mother-of-four belonged to a Zionist religious community that outlawed her from seeking medical assistance.
“Every time we fell sick, church elders would pray for us, splashing holy water and tying ropes around our necks. Going to hospital signified lack of faith in God,” she narrates.
One night, Chimtondo’s fourth-born went to bed shivering and sweating. By midnight, she was vomiting profusely and sliding into labour. Her condition defied fervent prayers to “drive out the evil spirits”.
Alarmed, the woman rushed the patient to Kasungu District Hospital, almost 60km away.
“When we arrived at dawn, health workers promptly stretchered her into an ambulance to Kamuzu Central Hospital to save her and the unborn from advanced malaria. She’d ran short of blood, but transfusion contravened our faith,” she recalls.
It was not until the patient was gasping for a dying breath that she allowed health workers to give her blood, Chimtondo recalls.
“My daughter couldn’t talk or brink. She was dying. She was only saved by a pint of blood. Today, she has two children,” she says.
Seeing her own child saved by the blood of a person she does not know has moved Chimtondo to join the New Apostolic Life Church which recognises her right to quality health services.
Beating the odds
Her family is among 95 landless families evicted from the defunct Press Agriculture estates in the tobacco-growing district. They fled to the neighbouring Zambia and later occupied the wildlife reserve illegally before being “dumped like refugees” in an overcrowded, unsanitary squatter settlement in Nthunduwala. Zionists dominate the displaced community.
Chimtondo now campaigns for children’s right to quality healthcare services—including immunisation, blood donation, mosquito nets, safe water, sanitation and hygiene—in the camp where health workers face religious resistance to medical solutions.
“I trust in health workers. All my children and grandchildren are vaccinated. When we fall sick, we go to Kamboni Health Centre for treatment. Medicines save lives,” she says.
She adds: “Many deadly diseases can be prevented by a simple vaccine. If you are not vaccinated, you expose yourself and the entire community to these preventable disease outbreaks.”
Public health fears
But locals surrounding the displaced population fear possible disease outbreaks in the congested camp.
Eliza Banda, leader of a group of 30 mothers who promote vaccines and child health in the rural border strip, commends Chimtondo and her colleagues for embracing immunisation and medical care.
“Vaccines boost body defences to diseases. Every child needs a shot at a healthy life. Prevention is better than cure,” she says.
Banda’s group visits homesteads to ensure every parent understands the benefits of vaccines. The volunteers trained by Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) with funding from Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, register children and pregnant women for immunisation, remind them to go for it and follow up on defaulters.
“The mother care groups have contributed to addressing social, cultural and religious barriers that prevent people in their communities from accessing health services, including immunisation. Currently, new groups have been established and trained in 13 hard-to-reach areas with low coverage in Kasungu to improve immunisation coverage and demand quality health services,” says Mhen monitoring and evaluation officer Florence Khonyongwa.
Chimtondo’s said “yes to vaccines” during mass distribution of treated mosquito nets for malaria prevention.
ChikondiChunga, a member of the mother care group, recalls: “I often go to the camp where childre feeling unwell don’t go to hospital at all and women often give birth in dangerous circumstances at home. What’s more, they hardly take newborns to hospital for checkups, immunisation and registration.
“One day, we stopped the distribution of bed nets to have a word with them. Fortunately, Chimtondo and a few others got the point. Their children no longer fall sick frequently.”
‘Let God judge’
As more children get vaccinated, Chimtondo finds it ironic that those who refuse medical treatment scramble for treated mosquito nets.
She states: “Only God will judge if seeking medical services is a sin. Many people are dying because of religious beliefs. Vaccines aren’t sins. Anybody who thinks medical assistance is useless should just look at my daughter.”
NEXT: Giving children a health start in life.