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Measles outbreak in Samoa kills 72, most of them children

Samoan father loses 3 of 5 children to measles
Samoan father loses 3 of his 5 children to measles outbreak 03:51

The Samoa measles outbreak has not slowed down, prompting the government to extend a state of emergency on Saturday to December 29. Over 5,100 measles cases have been reported since the outbreak, with 74 recorded in a recent 24-hour period alone, according to Samoa's government. 

More than two percent of the island nation's population has been infected, and 72 measles-related deaths have been recorded. Most of those who have died have been under five-years-old, according to the United Nations.

The highly infectious disease is preventable through vaccination, but only 31 percent of Samoans were vaccinated when the outbreak was officially declared in October, according to Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Samoan authorities declared a state of emergency in November.

The low vaccination rate this year was caused in part by a distrust of vaccinations that spread last year when two infants died after nurses incorrectly mixed their vaccines with another medicine. The accident compounded the worldwide spread of misinformation about vaccines. 

The anti-vaccination movement made the list of the World Health Organization's top threats to global health in 2019

The World Health Organization has described the fact that children are dying from a vaccine-preventable disease a "collective failure" to protect the world's most vulnerable children.

The measles vaccine is now mandatory in Samoa. Overwhelmed health providers have been working furiously to vaccinate the population. As of Friday, 93 percent of Samoans had been vaccinated, according to the Samoan government.

Samoan Measles Deaths Reach 70
Hawaii aid workers help out with MMR vaccinations on December 6, 2019 in Apia, Samoa.  Getty Images/Getty Images

On December 6, the government appealed for $10.7 million in aide to contain the public health threat. The United Nations announced earlier this week it would release emergency funding to the small Pacific island, meaning nearly $2.6 million will be made available. On Saturday, New Zealand announced $640,700 to help combat the disease in the Pacific region.

The United Nations funds will be used by UNICEF and the World Health Organization to provide emergency vaccinations, obstetric and neonatal care for mothers and newborns infected with measles, according to Laerke.

"Prevention through vaccination is the most effective way of avoiding illness and a costly health emergency," New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said in a statement announcing the funding.

Samoa isn't alone in its outbreak. The disease started appearing en masse earlier this year in the New Zealand city of Auckland, a popular stopover for small South Pacific islands, and measles epidemics have cropped up this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine. 

Last year, measles killed 140,000 people, mostly children. This year is expected to be worse, according to the World Health Organization. Compared with the same period last year, 2019 provisional data up to November shows a three-fold increase in measles infections worldwide.

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