A measles outbreak in Samoa has killed 53 people — the vast majority of them young children — causing the government to take drastic steps to contain the crisis. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi said on Monday that the government would shut down on Thursday and Friday, with nearly all civil servants being pulled from their usual duties and sent out to assist public health officials in a vaccination campaign instead.
Forty-eight of the 53 people who’ve died in the outbreak have been under the age of five. All of the victims were reportedly unvaccinated. Children have been banned temporarily from public gatherings and places where “large numbers of people congregate,” Tuilaepa said, according to CNN, and schools have been shut down for weeks.
The latest figures from Samoa’s Health Ministry reported 3,278 total measles cases in the weekslong outbreak, with 198 new cases in the last 24 hours. The nation has a population of just 200,000, and the government says they’ve vaccinated more than 58,000 people during the crisis. Samoa has been under a state of emergency since November 15.
The South Pacific island has been hit especially hard because the vaccination rate fell to just 31 percent before the crisis. The deaths of two babies last year likely contributed to that low rate: two infants died in July 2018 after receiving the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine.
It was later determined the deaths were caused by nurses mixing the vaccine with expired muscle relaxant instead of with water, and the nurses were each sentenced to at least five years in prison — but regardless of what actually happened, the deaths inspired fears about the vaccine and created an opportunity for anti-vaxxers.
“We have to make clear that vaccines are perfectly safe,” Sheldon Yett, UNICEF representative to the Pacific, told the BBC. “These deaths were due to human error… It provided the perfect opening for people who wanted to spread misinformation and lies.”
Anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists have helped revive measles, a disease easily prevented by vaccines, with outbreaks everywhere from New York City to New Zealand. Babies are especially vulnerable to the disease because they aren’t eligible for the vaccine until they are a year old.
Anti-vaxx views have caught on in the country. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., perhaps the U.S.’s most well-known anti-vaxxer, visited the country in June and met with prominent Australian Samoan anti-vaccine activist Taylor Winterstein. Kennedy’s anti-vaxx group mentioned the deaths of the Samoan babies in a post questioning vaccine safety, but never updated the post to reflect the fact that the nurses were found to be at fault.
With the number of cases still rising, Samoan officials urged the nation to listen to experts to stop the tragic outbreak.
“Let us work together to encourage and convince those that do not believe that vaccinations are the only answer to the epidemic,” Tuilaepa said in a speech Sunday. “Let us not be distracted by the promise of alternative cures.”
Cover: In this image made from video, a New Zealand health official prepares a measles vaccination at a clinic, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Apia, Samoa. Authorities said Monday that a measles epidemic sweeping through Samoa continues to worsen with the death toll rising to 25, all but one of them young children. (Newshub via AP)