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Samoan Government Shuts Down Offices After Measles Kills 55, Infects 2% of Population

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Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi asked for the public's help in making sure that people get vaccinated during the two days that government offices are closed. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP / Getty Images

The government of Samoa will shut down its offices for two days this week so civil servants can focus on a nationwide immunization drive after almost 4,000 confirmed cases of measles have swept across the small Pacific nation of just 200,000 people, as NPR reported. So far 55 people have died, 50 of them are children under four, according to The Guardian.


198 new cases were confirmed on Sunday and Monday, according to the BBC.

The government started a mass vaccination campaign on Nov. 20 and successfully vaccinated over 58,000 people, or one-fourth of the country's population, as it announced on Twitter yesterday.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi asked for the public's help in making sure that people get vaccinated during the two days that government offices are closed on Dec. 5 and 6. He asked for "village councils, faith-based organizations, and church leaders, village mayors and government women representatives" to persuade the public to get vaccinated, according to NPR.

He also cautioned against alternative medicine and homeopathy.

"Let us work together to ... convince those that do not believe that vaccinations are the only answer to the epidemic. Let us not be distracted by the promise of alternative cures," Tuilaepa said, as NPR reported. He warned people to avoid traditional healers, saying that vaccinations are the only cure.

Schools and universities have been closed since Nov. 17. Public gatherings have been banned and a state of emergency was declared on Nov. 15. While an immunization campaign has vaccinated tens of thousands people successfully, the outbreak has continued to spread, as the BBC reported.

"The situation has a tremendous impact on everybody," Sheldon Yett, Unicef representative to the Pacific, told the BBC. "People are nervous, people are seeing the impact of this disease. Samoa is a very small country and everybody knows somebody who's been affected by this."

Samoa has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF estimated that Samoa's measles vaccination rate for infants was 31 percent in 2018, according to Ars Technica. That's a steep decline from a rate as high as 90 percent in 2013. By comparison, the nearby islands of Nauru, Niue and Cook Islands have immunization rates of 99 percent, according to the BBC.

The low vaccination rate is often attributed to a medical mishap in July 2018 when two infants died after nurses mistakenly mixed vaccines with muscle relaxant instead of water. The nurses pleaded guilty to manslaughter and are serving five years in prison, according to the BBC.

"As a result of that, the vaccination program was halted while they investigated the cause," Keni Lesa, editor of the Samoa Observer told NPR.

During the temporary postponement of the immunizations, the anti-vaccine movement picked up steam and sowed the seeds of distrust. "They really found a gap there to really hammer home their message. And a lot of parents became scared to take their kids to get vaccinated," said Lesa to NPR.

Medical teams from Australia, New Zealand, France, China, Norway, Japan the United Kingdom, the U.S. and the United Nations have flown in to help stem the crisis in Samoa, according to NPR

The WHO has pointed to an insidious rise in vaccine skepticism for the uptick, saying earlier this year that vaccine hesitancy is one of the 10 largest threats to global health, according to Time.

"People who are spreading lies and misinformation about vaccinations are killing children," said Yett to the BBC. "The best way to keep children safe is to make sure they're immunised. Preventing vaccination and presenting false information kills children. That is clear - the evidence speaks for itself."

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