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Samoan Government To Close Its Offices Amid Measles Crisis That Has Left 53 Dead

Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, pictured in 2018, pleaded with the public not to turn to "alternative cures" for measles.
Daniel Leal-Olivas
AFP via Getty Images
Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, pictured in 2018, pleaded with the public not to turn to "alternative cures" for measles.

The Pacific island nation of Samoa will shut down government services for two days so that civil servants can focus on a nationwide immunization drive as the country struggles to end a measlesoutbreak that has claimed more than 50 lives, most of them children.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi announcedthe closure on Monday, saying the government is relying on "village councils, faith-based organizations, and church leaders, village mayors and government women representatives" to persuade the public to get vaccinated. As a result, he said, all but public utility government services will be shuttered Dec. 5 and 6.

More than 3,700 measles cases have been reported since the outbreak began in October, with 198 recorded within a 24-hour period. Fifty-three people have died and of those, 48 are children under 4 years old.

"Let us work together to ... convince those that do not believe that vaccinations are the only answer to the epidemic. Let us not be distracted by the promise of alternative cures," Tuilaepa said.

He discouraged people from turning to traditional healers for remedies, adding that vaccinations are "the only cure."

The situation in the small country has been compounded by the low measles vaccination rate among its population, which numbers just under 200,000 people. Just 31% of the population had been vaccinated prior to the epidemic, according to the World Health Organization.

Immunizations in Samoa plummeted last year after a high-profile scandal in which improperly prepared vaccine caused the deaths of two infants.

"As a result of that, the vaccination program was halted while they investigated the cause," Keni Lesa, editor of the Samoa Observer toldNPR.

"In the end, two nurses were charged, and they were found guilty of manslaughter," he said.

Despite the convictions, the public remained distrustful of the vaccination, leaving room for the anti-vaccine movement to pick up steam. "They really found a gap there to really hammer home their message. And a lot of parents became scared to take their kids to get vaccinated," he said.

Officials declared a state of emergency two weeks ago, closing all schools, prohibiting all public gatherings, and ordering mandatory vaccinations for high-risk groups.

On Monday, Tuilaepa said more than 58,000 people have been vaccinated since the mass immunization campaign began on Nov. 20.

Other nations in the Pacific region, such as New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji, have also seen an uptick in measles cases.

Medical teams from Australia, New Zealand, France, China, Norway, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the United Nations have responded to the crisis in Samoa.

The WHO reports there were more measles cases worldwide during the first six months of 2019 than in any other year since 2006.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine have reported the highest numbers of cases this year. The United States has reported its highest measles case count in 25 years.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.