Samoa measles outbreak: Death toll rises to 53, mostly children

Government closed schools and restricted travels ahead of Christmas holidays in efforts to control recent outbreak.

    Samoa is reeling from a measles outbreak driven by low vaccination rates that has now killed 53 people, mostly children [Paul Vernon/AP]
    Samoa is reeling from a measles outbreak driven by low vaccination rates that has now killed 53 people, mostly children [Paul Vernon/AP]

    The small Pacific island nation of Samoa has closed schools and is restricting travel ahead of the Christmas holiday season as the death toll from a measles outbreak tops 50, in the latest flare-up of a global epidemic of the virus.

    The highly infectious disease has been crossing the globe, recently finding a susceptible population in Samoa, where vaccine coverage was only about 31 percent when measles took hold, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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    In just more than two weeks, the official death toll has jumped more than 10-fold to 53 on Monday, the Samoan government said. There are now more than 3,700 cases of measles recorded in the islands' deeply religious population of about 200,000.

    "Five children died overnight," Nanai Laveitiga Tuiletufuga, Samoa Prime Minister's Office press secretary told Al Jazeera. 

    "A total of 53 people have died. Of these, 50 were children under the age of 15 while 23 were babies aged less than one year old ... In the last 24 hours a further 198 cases have also been confirmed by the Ministry of Health," she added. 

    About 2,000-3,000 government employees will halt their duties and assist with logistics to facilitate the vaccination drive of as many residents as possible, said Tuiletfuga.

    Measles cases are rising worldwide, even in wealthy nations such as Germany and the United States, as parents shun immunisation for philosophical or religious reasons, or fears, debunked by doctors, that such vaccines could cause autism.

    The WHO warned in October of a devastating comeback in measles epidemics around the world as the number of reported cases rose by 300 percent in the first three months of this year.

    Samoa, located about half-way between Hawaii and New Zealand, declared an emergency on November 20 and mandated that all 200,000 people living on the island get vaccinated.

    It said about 33,000 people were vaccinated before last month and a further 58,000 since.

    Samoan authorities have blamed low coverage rates in Samoa in part on fears caused last year when two babies died after receiving vaccinations shots, according to local media reports.

    The country's immunisation programme was also temporarily suspended. The deaths were later found to have been caused by wrongly mixed medications.

    Measles, a highly contagious virus that spreads easily through coughing and sneezing, has been reported in other Pacific nations, including Tonga and Fiji, but there have been no reports of deaths in those countries, which have greater vaccination coverage.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies