The government of Samoa will shut its doors Thursday and Friday and redeploy civil servants to help deal with a deadly measles outbreak, Prime Minster Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi announced in a special address Monday.
Fifty-three people — 48 of them children younger than 4 — have been killed by the disease in the South Pacific island nation in recent weeks, the government said in a news release. A total of 3,728 cases had been recorded as of Monday, according to the government. None of the victims were vaccinated, Tuilaepa said.
The decision to shut government services for two days is the latest in a series of drastic steps Samoan authorities have taken to stop the outbreak of a disease that was thought to be almost eliminated globally, but has made a dangerous comeback in recent years.
Schools throughout Samoa have been shut indefinitely since November 17 due to the crisis. Authorities have not set a date for them to reopen, according to Nanai Laveitiga Tuiletufuga, the Prime Minister’s press secretary. Children have been banned from all public gatherings and places where “large numbers of people congregate,” the Prime Minister said.
Samoa’s government officially declared a state of emergency on November 15, according to UNICEF, and began a mass vaccination campaign five days later. Tuilaepa said 58,000 people — more than a quarter of the population — were vaccinated from the start of the campaign on November 20 until Monday.
All civil servants, except for those who help supply water and electricity to the country, will participate in the vaccination campaign on Thursday and Friday by offering assistance to public health officials, Press Secretary Nanai said.
Measles is a highly contagious, vaccine-preventable respiratory illness characterized by a rash of flat red spots. Symptoms may include fever, cough, runny nose and watery eyes.
Measles can also lead to death when complications become too severe, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis — swelling of the brain — that can lead to convulsions, deafness or intellectual disability. As many as 1 out of every 20 children with measles will get pneumonia, the agency reports.
Measles has seen a wide resurgence around the world — in both high-income countries in the Americas and Europe and lower-income nations in Asia and Africa — fueled in part by fear of and lack of access to vaccines, and complacency.
Almost 350,000 measles cases were reported globally in 2018, according to UNICEF — more than doubling from 2017.
In his speech, Tuilaepa called on community leaders to “encourage and convince those that do not believe that vaccinations are the only answer to the epidemic.”
“Let us not be distracted by the promise of alternative cures. Measles is not a new disease to Samoa and rarely claimed lives,” he said.