SYDNEY (Reuters) – Samoa closed all non-essential public and private services on Thursday to combat a measles epidemic that has killed more than 60 people, mostly babies and young children, in a medical task complicated by a vocal anti-vaccination movement.
The measles virus has so far infected more than 4,200 people in the South Pacific nation of only 200,000, government data shows, prompting medical teams to go door-to-door this week to vaccinate families still susceptible to the highly contagious disease.
The government-imposed shut-down, scheduled for Thursday and Friday, is designed to free up resources for the vaccine drive and ensure people, some of whom are fearful of the vaccine, are at home when medical teams visit.
“Families are getting conflicting messages and it’s hard for them to then know what is the best thing for their child,” said Cate Heinrich, a Pacific spokeswoman at U.N. agency UNICEF.
“It’s been a problem in Samoa but also globally with the anti-vaxxers giving out their message,” she said, referring to groups advocating against the use of vaccines.
Measles cases are rising worldwide, even in wealthy nations such as Germany and the United States, as parents shun immunization for philosophical or religious reasons, or fears, debunked by doctors, that such vaccines could cause autism or other medical conditions.
The virus got a foothold in Samoa last month after devastating communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine, among others.
The devastating appearance of measles in Samoa has triggered conflicting advice on social media, especially on Facebook, which is a hugely popular platform in the Pacific.
Networks originating overseas including in North America have linked up with Samoans to send vitamins to the Pacific, according to social media posts, accompanied by claims that many of the measles cases may be caused by the vaccine.
Dr Richard Kidd, chair of the Australian Medical Association council of general practice, said such assertions were absurd – and dangerous.
“There are some people who can never be vaccinated because they might have allergies or they have serious immune problems and that’s why the rest of us need to share the responsibility to protect those who can’t,” Kidd said.
Vaccine rates in Samoa were only about 31% when measles took hold, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which was far less than Pacific neighbors like Fiji and Tonga where the disease has been more contained.
Kidd said countries required a target coverage rate of 95% to reach “herd immunity”, a term to describe a population’s ability to stop a disease from spreading.
In just over two weeks, the official death toll has jumped more than ten-fold to 62 on Thursday, the Samoan government said.
Samoan authorities have blamed low coverage rates in Samoa in part on fears caused last year when two babies died after receiving vaccinations shots, which led to the temporary suspension of the country’s immunization program.
The tragedy prompted anti-vaccination groups to warn against immunizations in Samoa, although the deaths were later found to have been caused by medications that were wrongly prepared.