Anti-vaxxer arrested as Samoa battles measles epidemic, with rising death toll

Samoa attempts door-to-door fight against measles

The measles epidemic in Samoa has prompted the prime minister to declare a two-day holiday in a bid to keep people indoors, as medical teams go door-to-door to vaccinate those still susceptible to the highly-contagious disease.

A boy receives a vaccine during a nationwide campaign against measles in the Samoan town of Le'auva'a. (Allan Stephen/UNICEF/ AFP).

A boy receives a vaccine during a nationwide campaign against measles in the Samoan town of Le’auva’a

Samoan authorities on Friday warned that anti-vaccine propaganda would not be tolerated, after a social media campaigner was arrested for opposing a mass immunisation drive aimed at containing the Pacific nation’s deadly measles epidemic.At least 63 people – mostly children – have died since the outbreak began in mid-October, with the crisis blamed on so-called “anti-vaxxers” convincing parents that immunisations were dangerous.

Communications Minister Afamasaga Rico Tupai said anti-vaxxers spreading conspiracy theories were hindering the unprecedented public health mobilisation.

Friday was the second day the country was on lockdown as government and aid workers scramble to vaccinate as many people as possible in the nation of 200 000 people.

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“The anti-vaxxers unfortunately have been slowing us down,” Tupai told TVNZ.

“We’ve had children who have passed away after coming to the hospital as a last resort and then we find out the anti-vaccine message has got to their families and that’s why they’ve kept these kids at home.”

He warned anti-vaxxers: “Don’t get in the way, don’t contribute to the deaths”.

The government-backed its tough rhetoric by arresting vocal anti-vaccination campaigner Edwin Tamasese on Thursday and charging him with incitement against a government order.

Officials said they acted after Tamasese had ignored previous warnings to stop his campaign.

Tamasese, who has no medical training, has railed against vaccines on his Facebook page and advocates using quack remedies such as papaya leaf extract to treat measles.

In a final post on Thursday before his arrest Tamasese described the vaccination drive as “the greatest crime against our people”, saying vitamin C would save children.

The government has special powers after declaring a state of emergency to deal with the measles crisis and the Samoa Observer reported that Tamasese could face two years in jail.

‘Overwhelmed’ health system

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said Thursday’s shutdown was a success, with 17 500 people, or almost 10% of the population, receiving their jabs.

As part of the lockdown, all businesses and non-essential government services were closed and residents ordered to obey a dawn-to-dusk curfew.

Families were also ordered to display a red flag outside their home to alert mobile immunisation teams if people inside were unvaccinated.

Yet the infection continued to spread, with the health ministry reporting on Friday morning 140 new cases over the previous 24 hours.

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

Samoa has received aid to combat the crisis from Australia, New Zealand, France, Britain, China, Norway, Japan, the United States and the UN.

But Malielegaoi appealed for more aid from the international community.

“Health facilities have been overwhelmed in coping with the influx of patients.

“The impacts of this emergency will be far reaching on Samoa and our people particularly our young generations,” said Malielegaoi.

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