Children are dying from an entirely preventable disease on Australia’s doorstep

A measles outbreak in Samoa has been linked to the deaths of at least seven people, including three young children from the one family.

A mother grieves for her child who died of suspected measles.

A Samoan mother grieves for her child who died of suspected measles. Source: TVNZ

Samoa is preparing to roll out a mandatory vaccine program in a bid to contain a deadly measles outbreak, but public health experts have warned a major change in community attitudes is what is really needed.

Samoa ordered a state of emergency on Friday as hospitals struggled to cope with hundreds of measles cases.

The outbreak has claimed the lives of at least seven people, including three young children from the same family.

Australia and New Zealand have responded to Samoa’s requests for help supplying additional medical supplies to treat more than 700 suspected cases.

All schools were closed on Monday and anyone under the age of 18 was barred from taking part in any public gatherings or going to medical clinics, unless they were the patient.

The outbreak is believed to have originated in New Zealand and spread to other Pacific nations, but has had a particularly devastating impact in Samoa due to low immunisation rates.

Conjoint Professor David Durrheim at the University of Newcastle’s School of Medicine and Public Health said Samoa has long had low levels of vaccination, dropping to as low as 41 per cent in 2008.

Rates were improving up until 2017, but two babies died in 2018 as a result of an incorrectly administered vaccine.  

“This obviously had a massive impact with confidence in the public with vaccination so sadly those wonderful gains in coverage in vaccination in recent years were lost,” Professor Durrheim told SBS News. 

Samoa’s ministry of health estimates just two thirds of the population are protected against measles.

Despite the rolling out of the new vaccine program, health department head Take Naseri gave an ominous prediction on Thursday.

“The way it is going now and the poor coverage, we are anticipating the worst to come,” Dr Naseri said.

The government has been criticised for not acting sooner to deal with the outbreak, but Dr Naseri said parents were at fault for not vaccinating their kids.

Before the new scheme, vaccinations were voluntary.

free measles vaccine
Samoa has made the MMR vaccine mandatory. Source: AAP

Dr Durrheim said removing parents’ choice can be a double-edged sword.

“What you really want is a well-informed community who appreciate the benefits of vaccine into the future,” he said.

In a sign the latest outbreak has already changed some attitudes, panicked parents have flocked to clinics with their children to receive the vaccine.

“People are now seeing the very real, pointed end of the disaster that is measles if it occurs in young children,” Dr Durrheim said.

It is up to the government to use the tragedy for good and promote the benefits of immunisation, he added.

It is unclear how the compulsory program will be rolled out and enforced. 

Australia sends medical help

An Australian Medical Assistance Team has been deployed to Samoa in response to the country's request for help. 

"The deployment includes a portable eight-bed intensive care unit and 26 medical practitioners who will bolster the capacity of the Samoan health system," a health department spokesperson said. 

New Zealand, which is experiencing its own measles outbreak around Auckland, will this week send 12 nurses and 3,000 MMR doses to assist.

Concerned residents in Samoa and neighbouring countries have also launched fundraising efforts to provide medical supplies. 

Australian travellers to Samoa have been reminded to ensure their vaccinations are up to date and to be alert for any symptoms of the disease. 

While several cases have already been imported from New Zealand, the spread has been relatively-well contained.

"These high immunisation rates are protecting Australia from ongoing community transmission, even when people with measles arrive onshore," the health department spokesperson said. 

Family grieves for three children

The Tuivale family has been hit hard by the outbreak, losing three children this month to a disease they suspect to be measles, 

The  the Lauli'i-based family's 14-month-old son, Sale, had died on Saturday, two weeks after the death of his twin sister and two-year-old brother. 

The father told the newspaper the three children could have been infected by the disease travelling to and from a market where the family sells items. 

New Zealand media outlet TVNZ reported the family withdrew Sale from hospital last week due to distrust and opted to treat the baby with traditional medicine.

“We are concerned, as you can see, we have three kids, three sick kids and we are fasting because we believe that God will get us through this,” grandfather Matavale Toailoa told TVNZ last week. 

Samoa's fellow Pacific nation, Tonga, last week announced government primary schools and kindergartens would be closed until later this month as the number of measles cases approached 200.

Fiji has reported four cases, but the country said they are contained to a township west of the capital Suva.

Additional reporting: AAP

5 min read
Published 18 November 2019 at 7:49pm
By Rosemary Bolger
Source: SBS News