As Measles Death Toll in Samoa Mounts to 53, Government Focuses on Vaccination

The Southern Pacific island nation's current outbreak is fueled by distrust and low vaccination rates.



Vaipouli Health Center on the island of Savai'i will be used as an isolation ward for measles patients. (Photo courtesy of the Government of Samoa)

Samoa will shut down public service and government activities for two days in order to focus all available resources on tamping down a deadly measles epidemic, Prime Minister Susuga Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi announced on December 2.

53 people, the vast majority of them children under the age of four, have been killed thus far by a measles outbreak that struck Samoa in October.

Nearly 4,000 cases have been recorded on the Southern Pacific island nation, which is home to about 200,000 people. According to the Samoan government, none of the people who have contracted the disease thus far were vaccinated.

The shutdown is Samoa’s most recent attempt to fight an outbreak that the government declared on November 15 to be a national emergency. 58,000 people have been immunized as part of a mandatory vaccination campaign. Schools are closed indefinitely.

On December 5 and 6, civil servants will set aside their normal duties in order to aid in vaccination efforts.

Measles vaccination rates in Samoa are unusually low. A survey published by the WHO and UNICEF on November 29 showed that only 31% of Samoan children were immunized, as opposed to about 69% worldwide. (Vaccination levels vary widely by nation.)

In 2018, two young Samoan children died after receiving the MMR vaccine, causing widespread alarm. The vaccine in that case was improperly mixed with an expired medication instead of with water.

Measles, a respiratory illness with a characteristic rash, is extremely contagious. Although most people who contract the disease will recover, a small fraction of young children go on to develop more severe complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that can cause permanent brain damage or even death.

Direct Relief is currently coordinating with the WHO about providing needed medical materials. The organization has also offered support to the Deputy Secretary General of the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat and the Pacific Island Community Health Division.

The organization will continue to monitor the situation and offer support as needed.

Additional reporting contributed by Gordon Willcock.

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