At least 55 people have died across Samoa following a measles epidemic so severe the nation has been forced to call a state of emergency.
On Sunday, the Samoan government revealed 3,881 measles cases had been recorded since mid-October, with 153 patients infected in the past 24 hours. To curb the death toll, the government introduced a mandatory vaccine campaign for priority groups on Nov. 20, which, so far, has immunized at least 57,000 people.
Significantly high levels of underimmunization across Samoa are being blamed for the outbreak.
Kate O’Brien, director of the World Health Organization’s immunization department, said the “very low coverage of measles vaccine” — which, in 2018, sat at 31% for children under five — has undeniably paved the way for the outbreak by quickly allowing the infectious disease to spread.
"When measles enters a country like that, there is a huge group of people who are not immune,” she told reports, according to the Guardian.
Latest update: 2,936 measles cases have been reported since the outbreak with 250 recorded in the last 24 hours. To date, 39 measles related deaths have been recorded. Since the Mass Vaccination Campaign on 20 Nov 2019, the Ministry has successfully vaccinated 44,907 individuals. pic.twitter.com/ZsqRGj9tNQ— Government of Samoa (@samoagovt) November 28, 2019
Immunization rates, however, have not always been so low.
The country’s national immunization rate fell to 34% in 2018 from 74% in 2017.
The significant drop occurred following an incident in July 2018, where two babies died after being administered the measles vaccination drop. The infant's deaths spurred the anti-vax movement in the nation and saw the temporary suspension of the nation’s measles, mumps, and rubella immunization program.
An investigation into the incident revealed the children’s death occurred due to the incorrect administration of a separate medication.
To halt the anti-vax propaganda and distrust in vaccines, the prime minister’s office released a statement which revealed that discouraging or preventing individuals from being immunized would now be considered illegal.
"All state of emergency orders ... are legally binding on the community. The specific order, therefore, to vaccinate is compulsory and is to be complied with," the statement read. "Any person that actively discourages or prevents in any way members of the community from receiving their vaccination injection is hereby warned to cease immediately, and is similarly warned not to take any further action of that kind.”
Measles remains a major cause of death among young children globally.
Despite the availability of a safe and cost-effective vaccine, measles claimed the lives of 110,000 individuals in 2017 — primarily of children under the age of five.
The United Nations’ children’s agency, UNICEF, has so far sent over 110,000 doses of the measles vaccine to Samoa.
Medical teams from Australia and New Zealand have also been dispatched to help the Samoan health system administer the life-saving vaccines.
The Samoan government will also shut down on Thursday and Friday, except for the nation’s electricity and water utility workers, so that all public servants can help deliver the mass vaccination campaign.