American Samoa declares measles outbreak, closes schools

A photo taken on Dec 4, 2019, shows a nurse preparing a vaccine as 3-year-old Sanele and her mother watches at the Poutasi district hospital in the Samoan town of Poutasi. PHOTO: AFP

PAGO PAGO (AP) - The government of American Samoa declared that the United States territory has an outbreak of measles, a move that will lead to the closure of public schools starting on Monday (Dec 9) and a ban on gatherings in parks.

In its announcement on Friday of the measles outbreak, the government said the territory had nine cases of the disease. Five of those infected had been travelling outside the territory.

As for the other four people who tested positive for measles, "we're suspecting that is local transmission - meaning that it's most likely that some of these travellers did transmit the measles virus to them, causing them to be sick," Health Department Epidemiologist Dr Aifili John Tufa said.

Dr Tufa said in a television broadcast that samples from those infected were sent to Hawaii for testing and the results came back on Thursday, resulting in the move to let the public know that "we are currently in the state of emergency" and a "measles outbreak".

In the neighbouring independent nation of Samoa, more than 60 people have died, mostly children, from the measles, and more than 4,000 were infected since the outbreak started in mid-October, health officials said.

American Samoa will get a measles vaccine shipment from the US Centres for Disease Control and Protection on Monday, Dr Tufa said.

Data presented by health officials early this week during a Cabinet meeting showed a 99.7 per cent vaccination rate for mumps, measles and rubella in the territory, officials said.

But Dr Tufa said that more needs to be done to up the rate for the one to five year age group, which is currently at 84.7 per cent. "The number one way to stop the spread of measles is to immunise," he said.

The developments in American Samoa came after dozens of Hawaii healthcare workers returned to their homes across the state after voluntarily providing measles vaccinations to thousands of residents of the independent nation of Samoa, officials said.

A team of 76 healthcare workers and support staff went to Samoa for a two-day medical mission to ensure residents there were immunised from the highly contagious virus, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports.

"You have scores of people dying, and the society is paralysed," said Honolulu surgeon Paulus Tsai. "Basically life has come to a standstill for the island."

Samoa declared a state of emergency and complete shutdown of government and business operations while vaccination teams searched for residents susceptible to the disease, health officials said.

About 34,000 people were immunised over two days, officials said.

"Of all the efforts to save children around the world, immunisation has the most dramatic impact. Everybody came together with their aloha to unite and support Samoa and attack this disease head-on in a way that will make a permanent difference in the lives of the people," Straub Medical Centre family physician Dale Glenn said.

The mission was coordinated by Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor, who worked with Samoan leaders, the World Health Organisation and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, officials said.

More than 500 people and groups responded and were ready to volunteer about 4,200km south-west of Hawaii, officials said.

"I hope the younger generation will realise healthcare can also touch other people's lives and can be a way for them to make things better for their society. It's protecting their future generations," Dr Tsai said.

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