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Measles Outbreak Kills Dozens Of Kids On Samoa And Infects Thousands More


A measles epidemic has killed more than 40 people, most of them children, in the Pacific island nation of Samoa. The country is under a state of emergency. Schools are closed, and vaccinations are now mandatory. The World Health Organization is blaming the high death toll on vaccine fears that have left the country vulnerable. Joining us now from Samoa's capital, Apia, is Keni Lesa, the editor of the Samoan (ph) Observer. Good morning.

KENI LESA: Good morning. Good morning from Samoa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As I just mentioned, schools have been closed. And vaccines are now mandatory. Parents are being warned to keep their children out of public places. What is the mood in the country?

LESA: Unfortunately, the mood is very somber. And, as you can imagine, it's a very sad country at the moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when you walk around the streets, I mean, are people going about their business, or are people are actually heeding the wanting to keep their kids at home?

LESA: You know, initially, this - now this state of emergency has been on for - going on for three weeks now. And at the beginning, people kind of really didn't pay much attention. But today, I've got to say it's almost a ghost town now, especially in the big parts of town where you'd normally expect a lot of crowds. That's not happening. Even the businesses that we've been talking to here - you know, they say business has been really, really slow for the last - past couple of weeks because people have basically stopped going out, especially the kids.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course. And the WHO says before the epidemic, less than a third of children under 5 had been vaccinated. Why is there such a low rate there?

LESA: Well, that's correct. You know, there's a bit of a story behind our vaccination issue here. Last year, we had a case in the Big Island of Savai'i where two babies died shortly after they were administered the MMR vaccination. And as a result of that, the vaccination program was halted while they investigated the cause. In the end, two nurses were charged, and they were found guilty of manslaughter - so that, you know, it wasn't the vaccination that was the problem. It was the way they were administering the vaccine. And so that contributed a big deal to the low percentage of vaccinations that we've had.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. The people were just scared and misidentified the cause and decided to not vaccinate their kids.

LESA: Oh, absolutely. And during that gap, I think people, obviously, who are against vaccination process have found themselves a voice. And they started getting to people's heads. They really found a gap there to really hammer home their message. And a lot of parents became scared to get - take their kids to get vaccinated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, because there's been quite a aggressive anti-vaxxer campaign focusing on Samoa, comparing the mandatory vaccines now to Nazi Germany.

LESA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's quite outrageous when you think of it. But here in Samoa, really, you don't - you're not hearing a lot of people talking about that kind of stuff. The focus really on the ground here in Apia - and this is a joint effort by the government and everyone in the country at the moment - is to try and stop this disease from spreading any further and taking any more life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are people getting the vaccine now?

LESA: Absolutely. You know, since the mass vaccination campaign has gone out, there's groups going out to villages. There's clinics popping up everywhere you could imagine. And it's free for everyone. So, really, there's no excuse for anyone not to be vaccinated now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How well is Samoa's health system equipped to deal with a medical crisis like this?

LESA: Not very well, I'm afraid - I mean, things have escalated over the last three weeks. And it's only been through the assistance of our donor partners like Australia and New Zealand that we've been - really been able to kind of make some headway into this crisis. But, unfortunately, as for our health system, I think they were really ill-equipped to address such a crisis as this. Really, I mean, they should've reacted to this three or four weeks ago. But they only reacted very late.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Keni Lesa is the editor of the Samoan Observer. He joined us from Apia, the capital of Samoa. Thank you very much, and good luck.

LESA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.