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A Samoan father loses 3 of his 5 children to the measles outbreak

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

Apia, Samoa — Doctors on the South Pacific islands of Samoa are trying to contain a massive, deadly outbreak of the measles. The virus has infected more than 4,800 people and at least 70 have died, many of them young children.

The Samoan government says 91% of those eligible have now been vaccinated. To prevent measles from spreading, 93 to 95 percent of a population must be immune.

At Samoa's main hospital, health officials set up tents in the parking lot to deal with the large numbers of measles patients. The government is in the middle of an aggressive vaccine campaign, which it believes is beginning to help. But it's clear the emergency will have a life-changing impact on families, as CBS News correspondent Carter Evans reports.

Evans met Paulo Puelua, who said the measles outbreak took hold of his family in an instant, killing three of his five children. Their mother Fa'oso is so distraught that she has been sleeping on her children's grave, set up in the family's front yard according to Samoan tradition. She told CBS News she felt it was her only way to be close to them now.

"It's gonna take a long time to heal," said Lina Chang, a community advocate who is helping the families of measles victims. She called the situation "heartbreaking."

"It shouldn't, shouldn't, shouldn't happen this way," Chang said.

Experts say measles is entirely preventable, but more than two percent of the island nation's population has been infected. Most of the deaths have been children, including a 10-year-old boy whose funeral was held over the weekend.

"It's the most complicated and painful thing in life," mother Alieta Losefa said.

Only 31% of Samoans were vaccinated around the time of the outbreak, in part because of fears that spread last year after two infants died when nurses incorrectly mixed their vaccines with another medicine.

The vaccines are now mandatory and the government is cracking down on the spread of misinformation. Authorities recently arrested an "alleged anti-vaxxer" after they said he publicly disputed the vaccine drive, saying, "I'll be here to mop up your mess. Enjoy your killing spree."

"I think what we've learned from this episode and this epidemic is the absolute importance of getting the right message out to the communities, educating the communities on the importance of having the vaccine," said Cate Heinrich, UNICEF Pacific's chief of communication.

CBS News

While the Samoan vaccination rate has about tripled in a matter of weeks, there are still challenges: Samoan families often have many children in close contact.

"The measles vaccine is the one safe and cost-effective way of protecting children from measles. In this day and age, we shouldn't see the measles in any country, and we're seeing a lot of cases globally, there's been double the number of cases reported just in the last two years," Heinrich said.

Samoa is still under a state of emergency. Now the nearby U.S. territory of American Samoa has also declared an emergency after at least nine people there contracted the disease.

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