Samoan government orders shutdown amid deadly measles epidemic

The government of Samoa on Monday ordered a shutdown later this week amid a growing measles outbreak that claimed five lives in 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 53 in the epidemic.

Samoa’s government will shut down Thursday and Friday so that all public workers can assist with the country’s mass measles vaccination campaign. Only workers involved in providing utilities like water and electricity will be exempt from the vaccination effort.

“Vaccination is the only cure,” Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said in a video on ABC News. “The mass campaign over the coming days will open up the opportunity for all of those who have not been vaccinated up to 60 years of age to do so.”

Of the 53 Samoans who died since late October, 48 were children under the age of 4, according to a government update.

Latest data from the Ministry of Health and the National Emergency Operation Center shows that more than 50% of the 29,000 children identified by health authorities as the most vulnerable have not yet been vaccinated.

As of Monday, the Ministry of Health confirmed 3,728 measles cases since the outbreak started. Within 24 hours, 198 cases were recorded.

There are currently 183 patients with measles at Samoan health facilities.

More than 58,000 individuals have been vaccinated since Nov. 20, the start of the mass vaccination campaign. Before the campaign, nearly 33,000 vaccinations were administered.

Samoa, known officially as the Independent State of Samoa, is in the South Pacific and consists of two main islands and four smaller ones. Last month, the government declared a national emergency and mandated that all 200,000 people living there get vaccinated.

Samoan authorities believe the outbreak started by a traveler from New Zealand.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country is trying to help stop the epidemic, including sending medical professionals and vaccines to Samoa.

Other countries such as the United Kindgdom and Australia also have sent medical assistance to Samoa to address the outbreak.

Traditional Christmas gatherings in Samoa have been cancelled, according to The New Zealand Herald.

Fewer than 30% of Samoan babies were immunized last year, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. About 93% to 95% of a population must be immunized to achieve herd immunity, or community protection from an infectious disease.

Although measles deaths globally have declined by 84% in recent years (from 550,100 deaths in 2000 to 89,780 in 2016), the virus is still common in many developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia, the World Health Organization says.

The United States, which had faced its largest measles outbreak since 1992, just barely managed to maintain its measles elimination status earlier this year. The country had more than 1,200 measles cases confirmed in 31 states at the beginning of October.

Measles is a highly contagious and spread by coughing and sneezing. The virus can live for up to two hours in the air. Symptoms include high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes and a rash that appears on the face at the hairline and spreads downward.

People infected with measles may suffer from severe complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (brain swelling).

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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