Samoa warned it will not tolerate anti-vaccine misinformation on Friday, after a prominent activist was arrested for opposing a mass immunisation drive launched to contain a deadly measles epidemic in the Pacific nation.
At least 63 people, most of them children, have died since the outbreak began in mid-October and the country on Friday entered a second day of lockdown as it administers compulsory vaccinations in a desperate bid to stop the virus.
Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington, reporting from the Samoan capital, Apia, on Friday said that so far, an estimated 16,000 people have been vaccinated during the first day of the mass immunisation on Thursday.
The focus of the operation on Friday are the urban areas of the country, she reported.
But Communications Minister Afamasaga Rico Tupai said anti-vaxxers spreading conspiracy theories were hindering the unprecedented public health mobilisation.
“The anti-vaxxers, unfortunately, have been slowing us down,” he told TVNZ.
“We’ve had children who have passed away after coming to the hospital as a last resort, and then we find out the anti-vaccine message has got to their families and that’s why they’ve kept these kids at home,” he said.
He warned anti-vaxxers “don’t get in the way, don’t contribute to the deaths”.
“We will advise police to act when we have no choice,” Attorney General Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff added in a statement.
The government-backed its tough rhetoric by arresting vocal anti-vaccination campaigner Edwin Tamasese late on Thursday and charging him with incitement.
Officials said Tamasese had been warned about his activities previously but posted a message to social media regarding the immunisation drive saying: “I’ll be here to mop up your mess. Enjoy your killing spree.”
The government has additional powers after declaring a state of emergency to deal with the measles crisis and the Samoa Observer reported that Tamasese could face two years in jail.
Stagnating vaccination rate worldwide
It also said that US-based anti-vaxxers were swamping government websites with material that Tupai described as “nonsense”.
He said the first day of the shutdown was a success, with more than 10,000 people, or five percent of the entire 200,000 population, receiving their jabs.
All businesses and non-essential government services have closed and residents have been told to obey a dawn-to-dusk curfew and display a red flag outside their home if they are unvaccinated to alert mobile immunisation teams.
Yet the infection continues to spread, with 140 new cases over the 24-hour period, taking the total to 4,357, and the death toll climbing by one to 63, 55 of them aged four or under.
There are also 20 children critically ill in hospital.
Infants are the most vulnerable to measles, which typically causes a rash and fever but can also lead to brain damage and death.
The outbreak has hit Samoa hard because its immunisation rate dropped to about 30 percent after an incident last year involving the death of two babies that anti-vaxxers incorrectly blamed on the medication.
The drastic action currently under way is aimed at lifting the rate to at least 90 percent, which should help curb the current outbreak and stop future epidemics.
Worldwide, measles has killed 140,000 people in 2018, the result of stagnating global vaccination rates in the last decade, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The five worst-affected countries, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine, accounted for half of all cases worldwide.
“The fact that any child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles is frankly an outrage and a collective failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable children,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, director-general of the WHO.
“To save lives, we must ensure everyone can benefit from vaccines – which means investing in immunisation and quality health care as a right for all.”