Samoa has closed all its schools, banned children from public gatherings and mandated that everybody get vaccinated after declaring an emergency due to a measles outbreak that has so far killed six people.
For the past three weeks, the Pacific island nation of 200,000 people has been in the grip of a measles epidemic that has been exacerbated by low immunization rates.
Schools were closed from Monday after the government declared an emergency on Saturday. The National University of Samoa also told students to stay home and said exams scheduled for this week had been indefinitely postponed.
Health authorities said most of those who died were under the age of 2. They counted 716 measles cases reported, with nearly 100 people still hospitalized including 15 in intensive care.
Samoa’s Director General of Health Leausa Take Naseri said in a news conference last week that he expects the epidemic will get worse. He said that only about two-thirds of Samoans had been vaccinated, leaving the others vulnerable to the virus.
But figures from the World Health Organization and UNICEF indicate that measles immunization rates among Samoan infants have fallen steeply from over 70% in 2013 to under 30% last year.
Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, said the Samoan government halted its immunization program for several months last year after two infants died from a medical mishap involving a vaccine.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday it was sending 3,000 vaccines to Samoa as well as nurses and medical supplies.
Ardern said Samoan authorities believe the outbreak was started by a traveler from New Zealand.
“We, of course, have an open flow of people,” Ardern said. “But we see our responsibility as supporting Samoa as they deal with the outbreak, and we are doing that actively.”
Petousis-Harris said it was disappointing that people in New Zealand who were carrying the virus had traveled to Samoa. She said New Zealand has for years known it has immunity gaps.
“But we didn’t deal with the problem,” she said.
Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand have also reported outbreaks of measles but on a smaller scale than in Samoa.
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- Unvaccinated young children are at highest risk of measles and its complications, including death
- Measles is spread by direct contact and through the air by coughs and sneezes
- The virus remains active and contagious on infected surfaces for up to two hours
- The first signs of infection are usually a high fever and cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose
- You may notice small white spots on the inside of the cheeks as well
- After several days, a rash develops, usually on the face and neck first and then spreading to the body and limbs
- An infected person can pass on the virus to others from four days prior to developing the skin rash to four days after the rash erupts
- There is no treatment, but two doses of vaccine can prevent infection in the first place
Health officials learned of the deaths on Tuesday and immediately lodged a request with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) for a flight to take health workers to Lotimor to conduct tests to determine if the outbreak was indeed measles, Tahir said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said as many children under five years old as possible will be vaccinated over the next three days in Lotimor.
If the measles outbreak is confirmed, the Ministry of Health will put together a state-wide immunization campaign, Tahir said.
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. South Sudan’s health ministry said only nine percent of South Sudanese children under the age of one have been immunized against all so-called childhood diseases, including measles.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends immunizing children against measles once between the ages of 12 months and 15 months and again between four and six years of age.
More than 440 cases of measles have been reported in South Sudan this year. If confirmed, the cases in Lotimor payam would be the first incidence of measles in Eastern Equatoria state, the WHO said.