Measles-hit Samoa has set two days to finish a mass vaccination of its 200,000 population as the death toll has risen to 62, mostly children. The country went into lockdown in an unprecedented effort to halt the virus.
The main streets of the capital Apia were largely deserted on Thursday as mobile medical teams went door-to-door to deliver measles vaccinations across the remote Pacific island nation.
Non-essential services were closed and police were enforcing a travel ban on private motorists, with the shutdown applying from Thursday until Friday evening.
Assisting with MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) immunizations compulsory since mid-November are medics sent by nations including New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the United States.
Read more: Germany makes measles vaccination compulsory
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said the aim was "almost 100 percent vaccination coverage." While visiting a hospital, he said: "It's the only antidote."
According to Radio New Zealand (RNZ), he threatened police detention for people who discouraged vaccinations or promised healing via traditional therapies to beat the highly contagious airborne virus.
"Some of our people pay a visit to traditional healers thinking that measles is a typical tropical disease, which it is not,'' Tuilaepa told reporters.
Read more: WHO cites spike in global measles cases
Lack of trust over infant deaths
Mistrust of health authorities was fueled last year by the sudden deaths of two infants given a MMR vaccinations falsely mixed with an anesthetic. Two nurses were subsequently jailed, reported Auckland's New Zealand Herald newspaper.
By Thursday, 4,217 cases of infection had been recorded since Samoa' outbreak started in mid-November, with 165 new cases over the past 24 hours, said Samoa's ministry of health.
Among the 62 fatalities, most involved children aged 4 or younger. Among child patients in hospital, 20 are reportedly in critical condition.
Fiji postpones sporting events
Fiji, 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) southwest of Samoa, on Wednesday asked its sports federations to postpone all competition until the end of January
"Working with the health ministry, we are going to try to stop it, now that we have 15 cases," said Peter Mazey, chairman of the Fiji National Sports Commission.
Read more: Why vaccination is so important
Fiji is credited by health authorities of having a "much higher vaccination rate," compared to Samoa whose immunization level was about 30% before the outbreak.
Samoa's rate has since risen to about 55%, say officials, with 73% of infants — the main "at-risk" cohort — now vaccinated on Samoa's main islands of Upolu and Savai'I, according to the island nation's health ministry.
Grim reminder, 'slide back'
Jose Hagan, the World Health Organization's (WHO) medical officer for the western Pacific, said Samoa's tragedy was a grim reminder of the measles virus "being exported through international travel."
The public was often surprised "when we see how fatal it can be," said Hagan.
The WHO had observed a "slide back" with "outbreaks happening all over the world," alluding also to parents who shun vaccinations because of philosophical and religious concerns.
In August, four European nations had lost their measles-free status, he said, citing cases in Britain, Greece, the Czech Republic and Albania.
Increased access to vaccines over the past 20 years was estimated to have saved 21 million lives, Hagan stated.
ipj/se (AFP, Reuters, dpa)