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Samoa's health chief downplays possibility of measles outbreak

Apia, SAMOA — Samoa's director general of health says he is not concerned about another measles outbreak like the one in 2019 after recent suspected cases returned negative.

In the last three weeks, several children suspected to have measles have been under observation.

But Aiono Dr Alec Ekeroma said all blood tests that have returned from New Zealand have come back negative.

The health ministry is waiting on the remainder of those results but Dr Ekeroma expects the latest cases will also prove to be negative on the basis that more children would have presented to the emergency department with symptoms.

Aiono said the 2019 outbreak that killed 83 people was off the back of an outbreak in Auckland.

He said he does not think there would be an outbreak in Samoa because there were no epidemics in Australia or New Zealand, with just one case being reported in Auckland and a few alerts coming from Australia.

The vaccination rate had also improved from about 25 percent for measles in 2019 prior to the outbreak, to now 85 percent for the first dose and 45 percent for the second, he said.

"With those vaccination rates there will be some sick children, but I don't foresee the more than 5000 cases that we got in 2019."

Samoa is in the midst of its latest measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), vaccination drive with the goal of getting the first MMR dose to 95 percent and MMR two to 80 percent by June.

Aiono said he had promised both the World Health Organization and the Minister of Health that he would reach the goal.

He said the Ministry of Health were "doing the hard yards again" going home to homes and village to village vaccinating children.

"I was hoping maybe that with a little bit of a scare in the media about possible measles that mothers would be rushing with their babies to be vaccinated, but we haven't seen any sort of mass exodus to our vaccination booths."

Aiono suspected the apathy was because people were "getting tired of vaccinations" following COVID-19.

The rate of vaccinations dropped suddenly in Samoa in July 2018 after two nurses administered MMR vaccines to babies who subsequently died.

An investigation determined that one of the nurses mixed the MMR vaccine powder with expired muscle relaxant anaesthetic instead of water.

Aiono said there was also no longer a fear of vaccinations, and the incident wouldn't happen again.

Meanwhile, the American Samoa Department of Health will only allow eligible school aged children who are vaccinated to attend school.

"Any school-age child who has not been vaccinated may be asked to stay home," a statement from the department said.

The health department gave notice for centers to work with the Immunization program in getting the eligible children vaccinated, or they would be subject to closure in seven days.

As reported in Samoa News, health department officials said their Environmental Health Services Division would carry out inspections of day care centers across the territory.

Day care centers provide care during the daytime for children between two and four years old.