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Measles Outbreak in Samoa Kills 6. Schools Closed. State of Emergency Declared
(R) The measles virus pictured under a microscope. PHIL / CDC
The Pacific Island nation of Samoa declared a state of emergency this week, closed all of its schools and limited the number of public gatherings allowed after a measles outbreak has swept across the country of just 200,000 people, according to Reuters.
The tiny country that is just south of the equator in the Pacific ocean, half way between New Zealand and Hawaii, has seen at least 716 suspected cases of measles, over 40 percent have required hospitalization. The six deaths were mostly infants under two, according to Reuters.
Nearly 100 people remain hospitalized with 15 in intensive care. The National University of Samoa, the island's only university, told students to stay home and indefinitely postponed exams, according to the New Zealand Herald.
The government announced that official plans for compulsory measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) immunizations would be published on Monday, according to Deutsche Welle.
"MMR vaccinations for members of the public who have not yet received a vaccination injection is now a mandatory legal requirement for all of Samoa," it said.
Also, on Friday, the Samoan government declared that measles vaccinations would be mandatory. It also planned to limit exposure by prohibiting children under 17 gathering in public or entering medical centers unless they are sick, according to the New York Times.
However, vaccinations rates in Samoa are extremely low. The numbers plummeted after two nurses incorrectly mixed a vaccine with an anesthetic, which killed two infants, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported. The immunization rate fell to as low as 30 percent last year from about 60 percent in 2016, according to figures from the World Health Organization, as The New York Times reported.
Those numbers stand in stark contrast to the nearby islands of Fiji, Tonga and American Samoa where outbreaks have been reported, but nearly 90 percent of children have been immunized, which is near the requisite number needed to prevent an epidemic, as the New York Times reported.
"The way it is going now and the poor (immunization) coverage, we are anticipating the worst to come," said Samoa's Director General of Health Leausa Take Naseri, as Reuters reported. He added that the children who died had not been vaccinated.
Experts have criticized the Samoan government for a slow and inadequate response to the outbreak.
"It's as bad as you're seeing and probably worse," said Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, as the New York Times reported. "This is very much out of control."
Nearby countries have offered nurses and vaccinations to help stop the outbreak. Winston Peters, the New Zealand foreign affairs minister, said today that his country would send 18 more vaccination nurses, upping their total to 30, along with 3,000 units of the vaccine.
"Measles is highly contagious, and the outbreak has taken lives in Samoa," Peters said in a statement, as Reuters reported. "It is in everybody's interests that we work together to stop its spread."
Australia also sent medical aid and 26 practitioners with supplies and a portable intensive care unit. American Samoa announced that travelers coming from Samoa must provide proof of measles vaccination or they will be denied entry, according to the New York Times.
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Poverty and violence in Central America are major factors driving migration to the United States. But there's another force that's often overlooked: climate change.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Oliver Leighton Barrett is with the Center for Climate and Security. He says that in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, crime and poor economic conditions have long led to instability.
"And when you combine that with protracted drought," he says, "it's just a stressor that makes everything worse."
Barrett says that with crops failing, many people have fled their homes.
"These folks are leaving not because they're opportunists," he says, "but because they are in survival mode. You have people that are legitimate refugees."
So Barrett supports allocating foreign aid to programs that help people in drought-ridden areas adapt to climate change.
"There are nonprofits that are operating in those countries that have great ideas in terms of teaching farmers to use the land better, to harvest water better, to use different variety of crops that are more resilient to drought conditions," he says. "Those are the kinds of programs I think are needed."
So he says the best way to reduce the number of climate change migrants is to help people thrive in their home countries.
Reporting credit: Deborah Jian Lee / ChavoBart Digital Media.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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