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.
“The only cure for this is vaccination ... having your children vaccinated is the only way,” he said.
Malielegaoi rejected accusations that his government had contributed to the crisis by not acting more decisively to address the long-term decline in immunization rates.
“I think you’re talking to the wrong people, we did it many, many times,” he told reporters.
Children are the most vulnerable to measles, which typically causes a rash and fever, but can also lead to brain damage and death.
The latest figures show that 54 of the 62 dead were aged four or less, and infants accounted for most of the 4,217 cases recorded since the outbreak began in mid-October.
A further 19 children remained critically ill in hospital.
Samoa has received aid to combat the measles crisis from Australia, New Zealand, France, China, Norway, Japan, American Samoa, the UK, the US and the UN.
However, efforts so far have failed to stop infection spreading, prompting this week’s drastic escalation in the immunization campaign.
Samoans can expect no immediate relief even if the national shutdown succeeds in boosting vaccination rates as the injection typically takes 10 to 14 days to become effective.
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