Measles Outbreak Leads to Shutdown of Public Services in Samoa

The government of Samoa is shutting down all public services for two days to fight a measles outbreak that has killed more than 55 people and infected thousands of others in the South Pacific island nation over the past two months.

Nearly 3,900 cases of measles have been reported in the country, whose population is just 200,000. Schools have been shuttered since the government declared the outbreak a national emergency last month.

The shutdown, which will take place on Thursday and Friday, comes amid a resurgence of measles in dozens of countries in recent years, including in the United States, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo and some European countries. Worldwide, more than 140,000 people died from measles last year, according to estimates released on Tuesday by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention.

In Samoa, where vaccination rates are low, more than 150 new cases of infection were disclosed on Monday alone.

Most of the victims in the country, which is part of the same island chain as American Samoa, have been babies and children under 4. The Samoan government said this week that half of the 29,000 most vulnerable children — those age 6 months to 4 years — had yet to be vaccinated.

As in numerous other countries, officials have struggled to stanch mistrust about vaccinations. In Samoa’s case, the health authorities say that many people became wary when two babies died last year after being given vaccines that had been erroneously mixed with an expired muscle relaxant instead of water.

Although the measles vaccination rate among infants in the country was as high as 90 percent in 2013, according to the World Health Organization, by last year it had plummeted to 31 percent.

Vaccinations were made mandatory for everyone in Samoa last month, and the authorities are now trying to accelerate the nationwide immunization campaign.

“Our children and people will never become immune to any future epidemic unless we have almost 100 percent vaccination coverage,” Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said during a visit to hospitals on Monday. “It’s the only antidote.”

Mobile clinics have reached remote villages and rural areas in recent weeks, and over 110,000 people in Samoa have been vaccinated since early October, according to government figures.

As part of the shutdown this week, no vehicles were allowed on the roads, and Samoans were asked to wait at home for vaccination units to arrive.

Schools had already been closed under the national emergency, and children were barred from public gatherings.

The country’s hospitals are ill equipped to handle the crisis: The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that the country’s main hospital alone needs at least 180 additional nurses to fight the measles outbreak.

“These hospitals aren’t designed to deal with this,” Scott Wilson, a doctor from New Zealand who has assisted health workers in Samoa, told The Associated Press. He estimated that Samoa’s hospitals were running at “200 and 300 percent capacity.”

Despite the government’s vaccination efforts, many in the country have turned to traditional healers, according to news reports.

The authorities in New Zealand, which once ruled Samoa and which is home to a large Samoan diaspora, said that the first case of measles in a recent outbreak in New Zealand had come from the Philippines, and that the disease had then moved to Samoa.

New Zealand’s director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, told the national broadcaster RNZ that the authorities were “also seeing the odd case now coming back into New Zealand from Samoa.”