WELLINGTON (AFP) - Samoa entered a two-day lockdown Thursday (Dec 5) as authorities launched an unprecedented mass vaccination campaign to contain a deadly measles outbreak that has devastated the Pacific island nation.
Officials ordered all businesses and non-essential government services to close, shut down inter-island ferry services and told private cars to keep off the roads.
Residents were advised to stay in their homes and display a red flag if they were not yet immunised as hundreds of vaccination teams fanned out across the nation of 200,000 in the early hours of the morning.
The operation, carried out under emergency powers invoked as the epidemic took hold last month, is a desperate bid to halt an inexorably rising death toll that reached 62 on Thursday, most of them young children.
"I've seen mass mobilisation campaigns before, but not over an entire country like this," Unicef's Pacific island chief Sheldon Yett told AFP. "That's what we're doing right now. This entire country is being vaccinated."
Immunisation rates in Samoa were about 30 per cent before the outbreak and have risen to more than 55 per cent since a compulsory mass vaccination campaign began a fortnight ago.
Mr Yett said the aim of this week's two-day drive was to push the rate above 90 per cent, which should help curb the current outbreak and stop future epidemics.
He said the normally busy streets of the capital Apia were almost deserted early Thursday.
"It's very, very quiet out here. I can just hear a few barking dogs. The streets are empty. There are no cars," he said.
"People are staying at home waiting for the vaccination campaign. The teams are getting their supplies together and getting ready to go out."
Even Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi's residence had a red flag fluttering outside it, with the leader saying his nephew had recently arrived from Australia and needed a measles shot.
Mr Malielegaoi said he was angered by anecdotal reports that some parents were encouraging their children to hide from the vaccination teams to avoid the mandatory immunisation injection.
"The message is that we have vaccinated a lot of people and they are OK," he told reporters. "The only cure for this is vaccination... having your children vaccinated is the only way."
Children are the most vulnerable to measles, which typically causes a rash and fever but can also lead to brain damage and death.
The latest figures show that 54 of the 62 dead were aged four or less and infants account for most of the 4,217 cases recorded since the outbreak began in mid-October.
There have also been measles epidemics in neighbouring Fiji and Tonga, but higher immunisation rates mean they have been more easily contained, with no fatalities.