Dogged Reporter Uncovers Measles Outbreak in Zambia Government Responds with Massive Vaccine Campaign

Mar 12011
  • Reporter Mirriam Zimba gathers evidence from health officials about a measles outbreak.

On her way to work this summer, Times of Zambia reporter Mirriam Zimba overheard two nurses discussing a startling rise in the number of measles cases. She called government health officials, who brushed her off. Knight International Health Journalism Fellow Zarina Geloo encouraged her to look into the matter.

“I told her, ‘you have to follow this up,’” says Geloo. “Up until that point, health officials were side-stepping the facts, and no reporters were pushing hard enough to get the right answers.” Zimba did press for answers. In a well-documented report, she detailed a widespread and deadly outbreak of measles in the capital city of Lusaka and surrounding areas.

Her story ran on the front page—the first time the paper had led with a story on a health problem in more than three years. Her piece prompted the Ministry of Health to launch an immediate vaccine campaign. Their target: 1.6 million people. The Deputy Managing Editor, also named Mirriam Zimba, said, “The Times is proud to have made such an important impact on the health sector, and will strive to do more now that we know how a little bit of focus can get such huge results.”

In her series of reports, reporter Zimba quoted government officials downplaying the measles outbreak, They argued that the increase was slight—and mainly because of a small percentage of babies who had not been vaccinated at birth.

Zimba, working closely with Geloo, went to clinics and interviewed doctors and medical personnel. They told a different story. The University Teaching Hospital – the largest hospital in the country -- confirmed that there was a significant outbreak.

Zimba’s stories reported 66 deaths linked to measles and more than 2400 cases of the disease in Lusaka alone.

The government then held a press conference and announced its vaccine campaign. UNICEF and WHO provided funds for the vaccines.

“I don’t think the Ministry would have acted as strongly as it did without Mirriam’s focus,” said Geloo. The quick response from the government to this story also changed the editorial mindset. “I don’t think they will be so resistant to putting resources behind a health story next time,” Geloo says.