On Dec. 5, 2019, the Samoan government reportedly arrested a “vocal antivaccination campaigner” and charged him with “incitement” as the government widens a mass measles vaccination campaign in the small South Pacific island nation of about 200,000 people. More than 4,300 measles cases with 63 deaths have been reported since the measles outbreak began in mid-October.1
In mid-November, the Samoan government declared a state of emergency. By Nov. 25 the government had closed all schools, including the nation’s only university.2
Samoa on Lockdown with Dawn to Dusk Curfew
By Dec. 5, the government had instituted a “lockdown” of the country, reportedly closing all businesses and non-essential government services, banning private vehicles from roads, banning children under 17 from public gatherings, and instituting a dawn-to-dusk curfew while the population is vaccinated.1 3 4 Families with unvaccinated children or adults have been ordered to display a red flag outside their home if they are unvaccinated so health authorities conducting the mobile mass vaccination campaign can come into the homes and administer MMR vaccine.
Reportedly, Samoan government officials are blaming “anti-vaxxers” inside the country and in the U.S. for the measles outbreak and for slowing down the government’s response, warning that “We will advise the police to act when we have no choice.”1 Most of the 63 measles-related deaths have occurred in children under age four years and there are 20 critically ill children in the hospital.
Two Nurses Imprisoned for MMR-Vaccine Related Deaths
In July 2018, two infants died in Samoa after being given MMR vaccine at a hospital and government health officials responded with a directive suspending the administration of MMR vaccine on the island while the vaccine was being tested.5 6 In August 2019, it was reported that two senior nurses at the hospital had been charged with manslaughter for mistakenly mixing MMR vaccine with a skeletal muscle relaxant and were sentenced to five years in prison.7
After the publicity surrounding the MMR-related infant deaths in 2018, apparently many parents lost confidence in the MMR vaccine and vaccination rates dropped to about 30 percent.1 The government is now seeking a MMR vaccination rate of at least 90 percent.
WHO Blames Vaccine Misinformation for Measles Deaths
On Nov. 27, 2019, the Director of the Immunization Department for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva was quoted in The Guardian as saying that misinformation about the safety of vaccines “has had a very remarkable impact on the immunization programme” in Samoa. She blamed “an anti-vaccine group” for stoking fears with a social media campaign that “is now being measured in the lives of children who have died in the course of the outbreak.”8
2 Cáceres M. Samoa’s Measles Outbreak and Response. The Vaccine Reaction Nov. 25, 2019.
3 Leonard J. Samoa on lockdown for vaccination after measles outbreak. Daily Trust Dec. 5 2019.
4 Samoa arrests vaccine critic amid deadly measles crisis. BBC Dec. 6, 2019.
5 Samoa recalls MMR vaccine after two deaths. RNZ July 9, 2018.
6 TVR Staff. Two Infants in Samoa Die After Getting MMR Vaccine. The Vaccine Reaction July 9, 2018.
7 One News Now. Nurses sentenced to 5 years in deaths of two infants in Samoa. Samoa News Aug. 2, 2019
8 Agence France-Presse. Samoa measles outbreak: WHO blames anti-vaccine scare as death toll hits 39. The Guardian Nov. 27, 2019.