Fri, Dec 06, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Samoa commences measles lockdown

MISINFORMATION:Immunization rates dropped steeply to just 30 percent before the measles outbreak, the WHO said, blaming an anti-vaccine messaging campaign

AFP, WELLINGTON

Samoa yesterday entered a two-day lockdown to carry out an unprecedented mass vaccination drive aimed at containing a devastating measles epidemic that has killed dozens of children in the Pacific island nation.

As the death toll climbed to 62, officials ordered all businesses and non-essential government services to close, shut down inter-island ferries and told people to keep their vehicles off the streets.

Residents were advised to obey a dawn-to-dusk curfew, staying in their homes and displaying a red flag if any occupants were not yet immunized.

Hundreds of vaccination teams, including public servants drafted in for the operation, fanned out across the nation of 200,000 in the early hours of the morning.

They plan to go door-to-door in villages and towns to administer mandatory vaccinations in red-flagged houses.

The markets on the waterfront of the capital, Apia, usually packed with tourists buying handicrafts, were silent as stalls stood empty, while there was hardly any traffic in the city center.

“It’s very, very quiet out here. I can just hear a few barking dogs. The streets are empty. There are no cars,” UNICEF Pacific islands representative Sheldon Yett said.

“People are staying at home waiting for the vaccination campaign. The teams are getting their supplies together and getting ready to go out,” he said.

The operation, carried out under emergency powers invoked as the epidemic took hold last month, is a desperate bid to halt measles infection rates that have been inexorably rising since mid-October, with most of the victims young children.

“I’ve seen mass mobilization campaigns before, but not over an entire country like this,” Yett said.

“That’s what we’re doing right now. This entire country is being vaccinated,” he said.

Immunization rates in Samoa dropped steeply to just 30 percent before the outbreak, the WHO said, blaming an anti-vaccine messaging campaign.

Two babies died after receiving measles vaccination shots last year, which lead to the temporary suspension of the nation’s immunization program and dented parents’ trust in the vaccine.

It was later found that the deaths were caused when other medicines were incorrectly administered.

Rates of about 90 percent are international best practice.

Immunization rates in Pacific island nations Tonga and Fiji are at about 90 percent, and their measles outbreaks have been far milder.

Yett said social media had been used to spread misinformation about vaccinations in Samoa and the online giants running the platforms need to clamp down on such “incredibly irresponsible” material.

“It’s quite clear that they have a corporate responsibility to step up to the plate and make sure that populations, particularly vulnerable populations, get accurate information that’s going to keep children alive,” he said.

Samoa’s immunization rate has risen to 55 percent over the past two weeks and Yett said this week’s two-day drive aimed to push it above 90 percent, which should help curb the outbreak and stop further epidemics.

Even Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi’s residence had a red flag fluttering outside it yesterday, with Malielegaoi saying that his nephew had recently arrived from Australia and needed a measles shot.

Malielegaoi said that he was angered by anecdotal reports that some parents were encouraging their children to hide from the teams to avoid the mandatory injection.

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