The Government of Samoa will be shutting its doors on Thursday and Friday to combat a measles outbreak that has already resulted in the deaths of at least 60 individuals, 52 of whom were children. At least 4,052 measles cases have been reported since the outbreak, 171 of which were recorded in the last 24 hours, according to an update released by officials Monday afternoon. Local schools were also closed due to the outbreak and will likely remain so throughout the holiday season until the start of 2020.
IFLScience spoke with Cate Heinrich, a UNICEF representative now stationed in Samoa, who said that an earlier outbreak occurred in New Zealand and has spread to other Pacific Island nations due to regular travel.
"Samoa had very low immunization coverage which left the country extremely vulnerable to measles. With the global outbreak of measles, the risk of importation to this vulnerable community was almost inevitable," she said, adding that the organization is "strongly urging parents to vaccinate their children against the serious disease."
Children between the ages of six months and 4-years-old are considered “vulnerable” and are indefinitely banned from attending public gatherings or places where large numbers of people congregate, including schools. Priority vaccinations will be given to children within that age group and to women of childbearing age between 20 and 39, said the Government of Samoa in a Facebook post. Statistics from the Ministry of Health and the National Emergency Operation Center show that over half of the 29,000 children identified in this group have yet to be vaccinated. Since the country’s mass vaccination effort launched three weeks ago, more than 9,000 children in that age group have received their vaccination.
“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. Measles is not a new disease to Samoa and rarely claimed lives,” said Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi in Monday’s State of Address, adding that vaccinations are the “only cure” against measles.
“No traditional healers or kangen water preparations can cure measles,” said Tuilaepa, noting that “it is a fact that those who have died have never had vaccinations.”
Officials say they are collaborating with Samoan cellular carriers to increase coverage of sites that are administering vaccinations. Currently, at least 40 locations are open across Samoa’s two islands. UNICEF Pacific Islands have sent around 115,000 doses of measles vaccines to Samoa since October 1, including supplies needed for administration. Since the National Measles Vaccination Campaign launched on November 20 in response to the October State of Emergency declaration, UNICEF says that more than 33,500 individuals have been vaccinated on the islands of Upolu and Savai’i. Of the nation's 169,000 residents, it is believed that some 58,000 have received their measles vaccination.
"Measles is a serious disease and it is spreading quickly. Vaccination is the best way to protect oneself, family and community. Visit your doctor or the health provider as soon as possible," said Heinrich. "An education and communication package has been rolled out in the country to educate and inform families on the importance of vaccination and what to do if they experience [symptoms]."
Measles outbreaks have also been declared on the nearby island nations of Fiji and the Kingdom of Tonga. On the other side of the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to the world’s largest and fastest moving outbreak, resulting in more than 233,000 cases of measles and at least 4,700 deaths.
Though the measles virus was largely eradicated through the safe and cost-effective vaccine in recent decades, 2019 cases were up 300 percent from last year, resulting in both the UK and the US losing their measles-free statuses. Infection is caused by a virus in the paramyxovirus family and is normally passed through the air and direct contact. In 2017, approximately 110,000 people died from the virus, mostly children under the age of five, according to the World Health Organization.