MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Samoa declared a state of emergency this weekend, media reported, closing all schools and cracking down on public meetings, after several deaths related to measles outbreaks that had spread across the Pacific islands.
The island nation of only 200,000 people, located south of the equator and halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, declared a measles epidemic in late October after the first death was reported.
Since then, at least six deaths, five of them babies under the age of two, have been linked to the outbreak, according to The Samoa Observer newspaper. Of the 716 suspected measles cases, 40% require hospitalization.
"Current methods and poor coverage (immunization), we anticipate the worst that will come," New Zealand Radio quoted Samoa Director General of Health Leausa Take Naseri as saying last weekend.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said on Friday his country would send 3,000 vaccines and 12 nurses to Samoa to help the outbreak.
"Measles is very contagious, and the plague has claimed lives in Samoa," Peters said in a statement. "It is in everyone's interest that we work together to stop its spread."
Cases of measles are increasing globally, including in rich countries like the United States and Germany, where some parents largely reject immunization due to philosophical or religious reasons, or concerns, denied by medical science, that the vaccine can cause autism.
Media in Australia and Samoa have reported that the Samoan government makes compulsory vaccinations for everyone with a vaccination program scheduled to be published on Monday.
In Tonga, about 900 km from Samoa, the health ministry said last week the outbreak of measles in the country occurred following the return of a team of Tonga rugby players from New Zealand.
Since then, 251 measles cases have been confirmed or have been identified, the ministry said in the statement.
American Samoa, U.S. region adjacent to Samoa, declared a public health emergency on Thursday after an outbreak of measles in Samoa and Tonga, according to New Zealand media.
Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes