Measles death toll hits 70 in Samoa

Measles death toll hits 70 in Samoa as 112 new cases are diagnosed in a DAY despite massive immunisation drive that saw the entire Pacific nation shut down

  • Samoa has a population of around 200,000 but only 30% were vaccinated 
  • A government drive has managed to bring this up to 90%, officials say
  • But it takes around two weeks for immunity to kick in, so thousands are at risk
  • 61 out of the 70 people who have died have been children younger than four 

Samoa’s death toll from measles is continuing to rise – despite desperate efforts to vaccinate everyone living on the nation’s islands. 

A total of 70 people have now died, with most of them children. Figures also show there were 112 new cases were diagnosed on Sunday and Monday.

Officials have blamed anti-vaccination beliefs for the rapidly spreading illness and last week arrested a prolific anti-vaxx campaigner for ‘incitement’. 

A huge immunisation drive has managed to vaccinate 60 per cent of the country’s population – some 120,000 people – in three weeks since a state of emergency was declared.

But it can take up to two weeks for the MMR vaccine to work, and measles is highly infectious so is continuing to spread.  

An immunisation drive has boosted coverage rates from just 30 per cent to around 90 per cent since the country’s government declared a state of emergency in November (Pictured: A child is taken to be vaccinated against the virus)

Official figures showed there were 112 new cases in the 24 hours prior to Monday morning.

This is despite the massive immunisation drive last week, which saw the entire Pacific nation shut down for two days. 

The government said the mobile vaccination teams had succeeded in ensuring 90 per cent of the 200,000-strong population was immunised.

This was up from around 30 per cent when the epidemic began in mid-October – low vaccination rates are to blame for the outbreak spreading rapidly.

Highly effective MMR vaccines have all but wiped out the disease in the UK, where coverage rates are around 86 per cent.

However, the vaccine takes 10 to 14 days to take effect, meaning it is too early to say whether the outbreak in Samoa has peaked – thousands may still be at risk.

The total number of cases recorded by today was 4,693, with 229 people currently in hospital, including 16 critically ill children.

The Samoan measles outbreak is proving deadly for dozens of small children, who are most at risk of the virus transforming into a deadly brain or heart condition 

Prominent anti-vaccine campaigner Edwin Tamasese was arrested last week for ‘incitement’. He allegedly told health authorities – who have launched a mass immunisation drive – to ‘enjoy your killing spree’ and told people to give their children vitamin C to ‘save your kids’

WHAT IS MEASLES?

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that spreads easily from an infected person by coughing, sneezing or even just breathing.

Symptoms develop between six and 19 days after infection, and include a runny nose, cough, sore eyes, a fever and a rash.

The rash appears as red and blotchy marks on the hairline that travel down over several days, turning brown and eventually fading. 

Some children complain of disliking bright lights or develop white spots with red backgrounds on their tongue.

In one in 15 cases, measles can cause life-threatening complications including pneumonia, convulsions and encephalitis.

Dr Ava Easton, chief executive of the Encephalitis Society told MailOnline: ‘Measles can be very serious. 

‘[It] can cause encephalitis which is inflammation of the brain. 

‘Encephalitis can result in death or disability.’

Treatment focuses on staying hydrated, resting and taking painkillers, if necessary.

Measles can be prevented by receiving two vaccinations, the first at 13 months old and the second at three years and four months to five years old.

Source: Great Ormond Street Hospital 

Infants are the most vulnerable to measles, which typically causes a rash and fever but can also lead to brain damage and death.

Among the 70 dead, 61 are children aged four or under.

Health authorities have blamed anti-vaxxers spreading conspiracy theories for the low immunisation rate that left Samoa’s children so vulnerable to a measles outbreak.

Outbreaks elsewhere in the Pacific, including Tonga, Fiji and American Samoa, have been easier to contain because of higher immunisation rates.

American Samoa, however, declared an outbreak on Friday and started closing schools today and banning gatherings in parks.

The island is separate from Samoa and lies to the south-east of it in the Pacific Ocean. 

Its officials said there have been nine cases of the disease there, which spread from travellers returning to the country. 

Prominent anti-vaccine campaigner, Edwin Tamasese, was arrested in Samoa last week as the government pushed to protect people from the spreading virus.

In a social media post he told parents to give their children vitamin C to ‘save them’ instead of having them vaccinated. 

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.

Samoa and the United Nations appealed on Friday to the international community for about $10.7million (£8.1m) to battle and recover from the crisis.

‘The impacts of this emergency will be far reaching on Samoa and our people, particularly our young generations,’ Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said in a statement.

‘It is imperative therefore to strengthen the culture of acceptance of vaccination in order to create “herd immunity”. This is a painful lesson we have learnt from the current crisis.’

New Zealand and a number of other countries and organisations, including the UN agency UNICEF, have delivered thousands of vaccines, medical supplies and medical personnel to help with the outbreak.

The World Health Organisation said this week that measles infected nearly 10 million people in 2018 and killed 140,000, mostly children.

The picture for 2019 is even worse, it said, with provisional data up to November showing a three-fold increase in case numbers compared with the same period in 2018. 

CLAIM VACCINES AREN’T SAFE IS ‘ABSOLUTELY WRONG’ 

The UK’s chief medical officer – the top advisor to the Government – last year criticised people spreading lies about vaccines being unsafe.

Dame Sally Davies, speaking on the 30th anniversary of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) jab, said people spreading the ‘myths’ were ‘absolutely wrong’.

She said in November: ‘Over 30 years, we have vaccinated millions of children. It is a safe vaccination, we know that, and we’ve saved millions of lives across the world.

‘People who spread these myths, when children die they will not be there to pick up the pieces or the blame.’ 

One myth is based on research done by Andrew Wakefield in the 1990s which claimed MMR led to autism, but his results were later found to be fake, and the work was called ‘fatally flawed’, ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’ by experts in the field. 

Others claim the vaccine doesn’t work – but after the introduction of MMR in 1963, global measles deaths dropped, on average, from 2.6million to around 100,000, according to the WHO.

The vaccine was introduced by the NHS in 1988, a year in which there were 86,001 cases of measles in England – within 10 years, in 1998, this had dropped to just 3,728 reported.

The figure has fluctuated since, believed to be partly due to the Wakefield scare in the mid-90s, but in 2017 there were reports of only 1,693 measles cases in England.

(Note: Figures quoted are cases reported to Public Health England and not lab-confirmed numbers)

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