Samoa has closed all schools and cracked down on public gatherings as it enters a state of emergency over the deadly measles outbreak spreading across the Pacific islands.
The island state of just 200,000, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, announced the state of emergency on Saturday after declaring a measles epidemic late in October, when the first deaths were reported.
Since then, at least six deaths, mostly infants under the age of two, have been linked to the outbreak, the health ministry said in a statement late last week. Of the 716 suspected cases of measles, 40% required hospitalisation.
As of the weekend, it would be a “mandatory legal requirement” for unvaccinated citizens to receive an immunisation injection, the government said in a statement. Only about two-thirds of the population has been immunised, according to the health ministry.
In the statement, Samoa’s director general of health, Leausa Take Naseri, said: “The way it is going now and the poor (immunisation) coverage, we are anticipating the worst to come.”
He added that the children who have died had not been vaccinated.
New Zealand’s foreign minister, Winston Peters, said on Friday that his country would send 3,000 vaccines and 12 nurses to Samoa to assist with the outbreak.
“Measles is highly contagious, and the outbreak has taken lives in Samoa,” Peters said. “It is in everybody’s interests that we work together to stop its spread.”
Measles cases are rising globally, including in wealthy nations such as the US and Germany, where some parents shun immunisation mostly for philosophical or religious reasons, or concerns, debunked by medical science, that such vaccines could cause autism.
In Tonga, about 900km from Samoa, the ministry of health last week said an outbreak of measles in the country occurred following the return of a squad of Tongan rugby players from New Zealand.
Since then, 251 cases of confirmed or suspected measles have been identified, the ministry said.
American Samoa, a US territory neighbouring Samoa, declared a public health emergency on Thursday following the measles outbreak in Samoa and Tonga, according to New Zealand media.
According to Naseri, about 90% of the population in Tonga and American Samoa have been immunised, and neither of these countries have reported any measles-related deaths.