A measles epidemic which has killed more than 50 people in Samoa has left the government racing to vaccinate the entire population.

Authorities on the small South Pacific island said today that another five children have died in the outbreak, which saw a national emergency declared last month.

The country – which has a population of 200,000 – has closed all of its schools and banned children from public gatherings.

In all, 53 people have died in the outbreak since late October, including one adult and two older teenagers.

Most of those who have died have been babies and young infants, including 23 children aged less than one, and 25 children aged between one and four.

The government said more than 1,100 people had been admitted to hospital since the outbreak began.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Some 180 people remain in hospital, including 19 children in a critical condition.

Jordan von Heiderbrandt, whose son Peter was the first child to die, told The Guardian: ‘No one ever thinks about burying their children, you always think my children will bury me.’

Samoan authorities believe the virus was first spread by a traveller from New Zealand.

Nanai Laveitiga Tuiletufuga, the Samoan Prime Minister’s Office press secretary told Al Jazeera: ‘Five children died overnight.

‘A total of 53 people have died. Of these, 50 were children under the age of 15 while 23 were babies aged less than one year old … In the last 24 hours a further 198 cases have also been confirmed by the Ministry of Health.’

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday her country was doing all it could to help curb the epidemic, including sending more than 50 medical professionals and thousands of vaccines to Samoa.

Other countries including Britain have also sent teams and supplies.

Ms Ardern said the natural curve of infection rates meant that ‘sometimes things can be worse before they are better’.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Figures from the World Health Organisation and UNICEF indicate fewer than 30% of Samoan infants were immunised last year.

That low rate was exacerbated by a medical mishap that killed two babies who were administered a vaccine that had been incorrectly mixed, causing wider delays and distrust in the vaccination program.

The government said some 33,000 people were vaccinated before last month and since then, another 58,000 people had been vaccinated.

The World Health Organisation has set a target of wiping out measles from most of the world by next year.

It says the disease is entirely preventable thanks to a safe vaccine that has been in use since the 1960s, and that measles deaths worldwide decreased by 84% between 2000 and 2016 to about 90,000 annually thanks to better immunisation.