The Pacific island nation of Samoa has just lifted a six-week-long state of emergency, which was sparked by an aggressive measles epidemic that infected more than 5,600 of the island’s 200,000 or so residents. In total, 81 people lost their lives, most of whom were babies and children under the age of 5. Now, a government-led vaccination program has stopped the epidemic in its tracks.
The outbreak began on October 16, after an infected person brought the virus over from nearby New Zealand, which itself has been plagued by 2,172 measles cases this year. On November 19, the government of Samoa announced that the country was in a state of emergency, leading to the closure of schools and restrictions on children attending public gatherings.
The spread of the disease is related to poor vaccination rates in Samoa, which in part stem from fears surrounding the deaths of two children in 2018. The blame was pinned on MMR – the lifesaving vaccine that immunizes against measles, mumps, and rubella – but it was later revealed that the nurses giving the injection had accidentally mixed the vaccine with a muscle relaxant, instead of water.
The deaths raised concerns about vaccines among parents and fueled anti-vax campaigns seeking to spread misinformation about the supposed dangers of vaccines. One vocal anti-vaxxer, Edwin Tamasese, was recently arrested in Samoa and charged with incitement against a government order.
Despite vaccination rates being fairly high at 90 percent in 2013, last year they had plummeted to just 30 percent. To be effective and achieve herd immunity, vaccination rates among a population need to be at least 95 percent. Some people can’t be vaccinated due to health reasons such as a compromised immune system, but vaccine coverage of 95 percent can protect them from the disease.
Aware of the importance of vaccinations, Samoa’s government swung into action when the emergency was declared, making measles vaccinations mandatory for everyone. Those that had not been vaccinated were told to hang red flags outside their properties, and on December 5 and 6, residents were instructed to stay at home while medics went door-to-door administering the vaccine to all who required it.
Within a week of the emergency being declared, about a quarter of the island’s entire population had been vaccinated. On December 5, three-quarters had received the vaccine. The campaign targeted those between the ages of 6 months and 60. Civil servants temporarily swapped their day jobs for helping out with the vaccination program, and doctors from nearby countries were drafted in to help.
Now, Samoa’s Ministry for Health has announced that 95 percent of the population has been immunized, meaning that herd immunity has been achieved and the virus will no longer be able to pass rapidly from person to person.
In recent years, many nations around the world have experienced deadly surges in measles cases driven by poor vaccine uptake – either a result of anti-vax misinformation or lack of access to medical supplies. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where the vaccine is readily available, make sure both you and your kids get the shot. It might just save a life.