Apia —The number of measles-related deaths in Samoa has hit 65 as of Sunday and the local government reported at least 4,460 measles cases since the outbreak began in October-- with 103 new cases recorded in the last 24 hours, according to RNZ Pacific.
RNZ also reported that the government declared a state-of-emergency in Samoa in a major push to get everyone immunized against measles.
The country is shutting down for two days so mobile medical teams can visit people at home who haven’t been vaccinated and give them the jab.
The lockdown applies to almost everyone except essential services. Private vehicles are also banned on the roads from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m.
More than half the country has now been vaccinated, but in the next 48 hours, the government aims to boost that to at least 90 percent.
The World Health Organization says the Samoan government’s aggressive response has started to slow the number of new measles cases.
With fatalities climbing, WHO medical officer for the western Pacific, Jose Hagan, told Morning Report that it’s difficult to say how high it could reach but expected for the aggressive immunization response to have an impact soon.
“The cases have been increasing fairly rapidly. However, with the ministry’s response, which has been very aggressive, to try and make sure that they’re filling in the vaccination gap, providing vaccines for as many people as possible, as rapidly as possible, we’re starting to see a bit of a plateau in the rate of new cases.”
Samoa stopped its immunization program for 10 months when two babies died from an MMR vaccination mix-up last year, but has re-started it.
Dr. Hagan said he understood the moratorium on the program may have been lifted on a small scale before March, but by the time it was fully re-started there was a large number of unprotected people.
“When the program was paused for a few months, that’s enough time for a few thousand unvaccinated children to build up. It does create situation where a large group of people are susceptible to the virus and that’s sort of the recipe for a large outbreak.”
The Samoan government was concerned after the deaths of the two babies last year and “wanted to deal with it in the way that they found appropriate in their context,” Dr. Hagan said, but they still took WHO’s advice into consideration.
“We did not advise them to stop the program once it was understood that the event had nothing to do with the vaccine itself.”
WHO gave support to their Ministry of Health partners in Samoa, as is standard practice, with guidance around the appropriate way to respond and reassure the population, Dr. Hagan said.
“We can provide technical advice on the appropriate response and certainly advocate for resumption of immunization activities as soon as possible and work with the government to provide the correct investigation and public messaging that should follow after an event like this.
“In the end, countries have to make their own decisions about how to deal with their immunization program in their own local context.”
The accumulation of unvaccinated children was not the only challenge facing the region when it came to outbreaks, he said.
“The outbreaks are happening in the context of outbreaks all around the world in an extremely connected community in the Pacific — including strong connections to Auckland where there was this large outbreak ongoing in recent months.
“The risk of imported virus into this community, where there was no measles circulating, was certainly very high.”
The measles outbreaks occurring all over the world meant that the Pacific islands were particularly vulnerable, he said.
“One thing I want to stress is that this is a global crisis. There’s outbreaks that are occurring in countries that export travelers, export tourists...that are spreading this to countries that are small and vulnerable, like the Pacific islands.
“So as long as these outbreaks continue to occur through importation, children are going to be at-risk and unless all countries urgently accelerate their programs then these outbreaks will continue.”