Measles Blamed for More than 50 Deaths in Samoa

02 December, 2019

The government of Samoa announced on Monday that five more children had died within the past day from measles.

That raises the number of measles deaths on the Pacific island nation to 53 since late October. Forty-eight of the victims were children.

The government has closed schools and is restricting travel before the Christmas holiday season.

The French news agency AFP reports that the government said almost 200 new measles cases had been recorded since Sunday. There was no sign of the rate of infection slowing on Samoa, even with a mass vaccination program in effect.

This is the latest outbreak of a worldwide epidemic of measles. The highly infectious virus found an at-risk population in Samoa. The World Health Organization, WHO, says only about 31% of the population was vaccinated when the outbreak started.

Now there are more than 3,700 cases of measles recorded among the 200,000 people on the islands.

Samoa has been racing to give vaccines to children since declaring a state of emergency on November 20. It has vaccinated over 58,000 people to date, the government said on Monday.

In this November 2019, image from video, children with parents wait in line to get vaccinated outside a health clinic in Apia, Samoa.
In this November 2019, image from video, children with parents wait in line to get vaccinated outside a health clinic in Apia, Samoa.

Measles rising around the world

Measles cases are rising worldwide, even in wealthy nations, such as Germany and the United States. Some parents have religious reasons for not vaccinating their children or oppose the idea of immunization. Others fear that the vaccines could cause autism, which doctors say is not true.

Other nations, through either poverty or poor planning, have let immunization levels decrease. This leaves many youngsters exposed to a virus that aggressively attacks the body's natural defenses against disease.

WHO warned in October of a damaging comeback in measles epidemics as the number of reported cases rose by 300 percent in the first three months of 2019.

Reported measles cases are the highest they have been in any year since 2006, WHO said.

Measles in the Pacific

Measles caused devastation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine, among others nations. Then many measles cases started appearing earlier this year in Auckland, New Zealand. The city is a center for travel to and from small Pacific islands.

Doctor Helen Petousis-Harris is a vaccine specialist at the University of Auckland. She said there were areas where immunization rates had decreased, enabling the disease to take hold.

"It's about being a good global citizen really, in that we all have to do our bit," Petousis-Harris said. "I don't think the response here has been a shining example."

Local media reports that Samoan officials blamed low coverage rates in Samoa in part on fears caused last year when two babies died after receiving vaccinations. The country's immunization program was temporarily suspended. The deaths were later found to have been caused by medications that were wrongly mixed.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said it was time to immunize everyone in Samoa aged 60 and under. In his message, Tuilaepa said "vaccination is the only cure," adding that no traditional healers or other methods can cure measles.

I'm Anne Ball.

Anne Ball wrote this story, with information from Reuters and the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

outbreak – n. a sudden start or increase of fighting or disease

epidemic – n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people

autism – n. a condition or disorder that begins in childhood and that causes problems in forming relationships and in communicating with other people

bit – n. a part of something