Tue, Dec 03, 2019 - Page 4 News List

Measles at crisis point in Samoa

OUTBREAK:More than 50 people have died in the country of 200,000, as the PM told the population that vaccination, not traditional medicine, would stop the disease

Reuters, WELLINGTON and SYDNEY

A New Zealand health official prepares a measles vaccination at a clinic in Apia, Samoa, on Monday last week.

Photo: AP

The small Pacific island nation of Samoa has closed schools and is restricting travel ahead of the Christmas holiday season as the death toll from a measles outbreak tops 50, in the latest flare-up of a global epidemic of the virus.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi yesterday ordered a government shutdown to help combat the outbreak.

Malielegaoi said it was time to immunize everyone under the age of 60 in the island with a population of 200,000 people.

To achieve the goal, he said government services and departments would close on Thursday and Friday this week in order to allow all public servants to assist with the mass vaccination campaign throughout the country.

He said only electricity and water utility workers would be exempt and called on the nation to stand together to contain the outbreak.

“In this time of crisis, and the cruel reality of the measles epidemic, let us reflect on how we can avoid recurrence in the future,” Malielegaoi said in a national address.

Malielegaoi was unequivocal in his message, adding “vaccination is the only cure ... no traditional healers or kangen [alkaline] water preparations can cure measles.”

“Let us work together to encourage and convince those that do not believe that vaccinations are the only answer to the epidemic. Let us not be distracted by the promise of alternative cures,” he said.

The highly infectious disease has been crossing the globe, recently finding a susceptible population in Samoa, where vaccine coverage was only about 31 percent when measles took hold, according to the WHO.

In just over two weeks, the official death toll has jumped more than 10-fold to 53 yesterday, the Samoan government said. There are now more than 3,700 cases of measles recorded in the island’s deeply religious population of around 200,000.

“All our schools are closed, national exams have been postponed,” said Reverend Vavatau Taufao, general secretary of the Congregation Christian Church in Samoa.

“We are still having church services but if it gets worse we will have to stop church altogether — and it’s almost Christmas,” he added.

The vast majority of deaths were of children, with 48 out of the 53 aged four or under dying from the disease, according to a government update.

Measles cases are rising worldwide, even in wealthy nations such as Germany and the US, as parents shun immunization for philosophical or religious reasons, or fears, debunked by doctors, that such vaccines could cause autism.

Other nations, through either poverty or poor planning, have let immunization levels slip, exposing their youngest members to a disease that aggressively attacks the immune system.

WHO warned in October of a devastating comeback in measles epidemics as the number of reported cases rose by 300 percent in the first three months of this year.

Reported measles cases are the highest they have been in any year since 2006, the WHO said.

After causing devastation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine, among others, measles cases started appearing en masse earlier this year in the New Zealand city of Auckland, a hub for travel to and from small Pacific islands.

Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist at the University of Auckland, said there were pockets of the community where immunization rates had slipped, allowing the disease to take hold.

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