photo from RNZ

WASHINGTON, 12 DECEMBER 2019 (WASHINGTON POST) — Federal health officials are sending teams of experts to Pacific island nations in response to measles outbreaks amid concerns that a major outbreak on Samoa could heighten the spread of disease.

The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) already deployed two experts to Samoa, where measles has overwhelmed the health system in a country with a population of about 200,000. Measles has sickened nearly 4,900 people, killing 71, most of them children under 5.

This week, in response to requests for help from individual countries and United Nations groups, additional CDC teams are flying to Tonga, Fiji and American Samoa, where there are ongoing, smaller measles outbreaks that could intensify, CDC officials said.

One CDC expert will focus on fighting misinformation about measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases, in response to requests from UNICEF.

Health officials want to make sure “to communicate that the disease is dangerous and that the vaccine is good,” Robert Linkins, a global immunization official at CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta, said in a recent interview.

“These other countries are also seeing cases of measles, and they are at risk for importation” from the Samoa outbreak, he said. “The need is very big. There are a lot of Pacific islands. All are at risk of seeing cases. You need a lot of people to get on planes to go to these islands to get them the information they need.”

In many Pacific island countries, measles vaccine coverage is below the level recommended by the World Health Organisation to protect against the disease. Last year, coverage for one dose of measles vaccine ranged from 73 percent in the Federated States of Micronesia to 75 percent in Vanuatu and to 83 percent in the Marshall Islands, according to the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. The WHO recommends that 95 percent vaccination with two doses is needed to protect against the disease.

Samoa has been the target of anti-vaccine activists, and the WHO estimated that in 2018, only 31 percent of children received the measles vaccine during their first year of life, a drop from 60 to 70 percent in previous years. The WHO attributed the extremely low rate in part to a public health scandal: Last year, two infants in Samoa died within hours of receiving the MMR vaccine. The country temporarily halted its vaccine programme, but the vaccine did not cause the deaths. Two nurses improperly mixed the vaccines with a liquid muscle relaxant instead of water. The pair were sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter.

Last week, Samoan officials arrested a local anti-vaccine activist and charged him with “incitement” for claiming that the government’s vaccination campaign would result in mass deaths…. (PACNEWS)