The deadly measles epidemic that has been sweeping the Pacific islands has now claimed 32 lives in Samoa, according to the country’s health authorities. Although the first victims were mostly children and babies under the age of four, three people between the ages of 10 and 19 have now lost their lives.
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Samoa declared a state of emergency on the 16 of November after declaring the epidemic in October, and schools have been closed with young people being urged not to attend public gatherings.
Measles is a highly infectious, airborne viral disease that can lead to serious complications. Initial symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing, sore, red eyes, high temperature, and small white spots inside the cheeks, which develop around ten days after being infected. As the illness progresses, a red-brown rash will spread across the skin, which usually starts on the head or neck.
Some serious complications of measles can include pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), seizures, meningitis, and sight loss.
To fight the outbreak, the Samoan government has made measles vaccination a legal requirement, and Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga of American Samoa has ordered that everyone traveling from Samoa and Tonga to American Samoa have to possess proof of their measles vaccination before they can enter.
From 25 to the 26 of November alone, there were 243 new cases of measles, adding to the already increasing number of 2,437 reported cases. Samoan hospitals have seen 679 people admitted, which makes up two-thirds of all recent hospital admissions. Of these people, 183 remain in hospital, and 20 children are in intensive care.
These hospitals are not designed to deal with this. The minute you get hospitals running at 200 to 300 percent capacity – I think it speaks for itself. It’s incredibly serious.”
Dr. Scott Wilson, in an interview with Newshub in Apia
World Health Organization and UNICEF figures show that measles vaccination in Samoan children has fallen from 70 percent in 2013 to under 30 percent in 2018. But now, over 56,000 people have been vaccinated since the outbreak, with 24,000 people being vaccinated since the 20 of November.
Despite this, Samoa’s Director of General Health Leausa Take Naseri said, “We still have a big problem at hand,” in a video statement. Limited supplies have meant that families have had to be turned away from health centers in neighboring countries due to vaccinations being restricted to those most in need – namely people living in badly affected areas, young children, and people who are traveling abroad.
Additionally, some families are not seeking vaccination but are instead getting help from alternative healers to cure their children’s measles infections.
The Samoan Government have now made it compulsory to be vaccinated against measles, and have warned against people discouraging others from being vaccinated. In an online statement they wrote:
“Any person that actively discourages or prevents in any way members of the community from receiving their vaccination injection, is hereby warned, to cease immediately, and is similarly warned not to take any further action of that kind.”
Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand have reported outbreaks of their own, but they have not yet reached the levels seen in Samoa. A large number of vaccinations are being sent from Europe to the Pacific islands, Fiji in particular, to help increase the vaccination rates.