The measles epidemic in Samoa has hit home for one Bay of Plenty family who has lost a loved one as the small island nation grapples to stem the tide of the outbreak. Sandra Conchie, Carmen Hall and Jean Bell report.
A Bay of Plenty relative of one of the victim's of Samoa's measles epidemic says his and his wife's grief has to be put "on the back burner" for now as they continue to work to get more supplies and support to those in dire need in his homeland.
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The deal toll has risen to 65, and at least 4460 confirmed cases since October. 165 people remain in hospital including 18 critically ill children and three pregnant women.
Chris Simanu, the deacon of the Rotorua arm of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, said he and his wife Kika recently received the devastating news that the daughter of his wife's niece is among the dead.
The toddler, who was born in June this year, died about one-and-half weeks ago, he said.
Simanu said they received the sad news via a Facebook Messenger post.
"Unfortunately due to the remoteness of the village where this family lives and the shutdown of some services we have been unable to speak directly to my wife's niece."
The little girl's parents and her two older boys live in the remote village of Sapo'e, more than two-and-half hours' drive away from the capital, Apia, he said.
Sapo'e was also one of the remote villages hit by a devastating tsunami in 2009.
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Simanu said it was frustrating health officials in Samoa continued to come up against different cultural attitudes to being vaccinated against measles, and anti-vaccine advocates were not helping the situation.
"It's absolutely tragic what is happening in Samoa and our thoughts go out to all the families who lost loved ones and the hundreds of others impacted by this epidemic."
The feelings of grief and urgency to do something to help were immense, he said.
"As a family, we have to put our own grief on the back-burner for now as we work furiously to get more aid to those who desperately need it as fast as we can.
"It's a tragedy, and so horrible to know that so many babies have died and many more will become infected because they're not immunised against this deadly disease.
"We can only hope and pray the mass vaccination campaign can stop any more babies from dying and others becoming infected, but it's going to take a mammoth effort."
Anyone wishing to support the Bay of Plenty relief efforts and help fill shipping containers with essential items can contact Simanu or any of the other local Samoan churches.
Others in the Samoan community in the Bay of Plenty are sending their best wishes to their homeland as the small island nation grapples with the epidemic.
The Samoan government is undertaking a door-to-door mass vaccination campaign throughout the entire country.
This comes as the Bay of Plenty grapples with its own outbreak closer to home, with public health authorities warning people to get vaccinated.
Rotorua Multicultural Council president Margriet Theron said she was "really concerned" about the outbreak in Samoa.
"If you're got family in Samoa, the best thing you can do is encourage them to get vaccinated."
Toi Te Ora medical officer of health, Dr Neil de Wet, said New Zealand was experiencing its largest measles outbreak in 20 years with more than 2000 cases nationwide this year.
De Wet said there had been 74 confirmed cases of measles in the Bay of Plenty and Lakes since January 1 this year, of which 24 have been admitted to hospital.
"Last year we had no cases of measles in the Bay of Plenty and Lakes District Health Board areas," he said.
He said the last case of measles in the Bay of Plenty and Lakes districts was confirmed on November 29. So far, there had been 41 confirmed Western Bay, three in the Eastern Bay, 19 in Rotorua, and 11 in Taupō.
"The tragic events in Samoa demonstrate that measles should not be taken lightly. It can be a very serious disease and is extremely infectious - just being in the same room as someone with measles can lead to you becoming infected if you are not immune," he said.
Meanwhile, helloworld Travel Rotorua owner Deborah Kay said the business had no clients scheduled to depart for Samoa in the next few weeks.
"Our inquiries for Samoa as a destination have been light and at the moment we would deter them from committing to the country as a holiday destination," she said.
House of Travel Tauranga owner Shane Kennedy said the measles epidemic would not affect New Zealanders as most had been immunised so there were no significant health and safety issues.
But the state of emergency would impact on some tourists, he said.
''We have been advised that all public services and businesses will be closed [Thursday] and Friday and all inter-island travel between the two islands has been shut down. So that is when it gets problematic for Kiwi travellers.''
Kennedy said travel insurance should be valid depending on which policies tourists had.
According to the Ministry of Health's website, there was an outbreak of measles in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the Philippines.
Primary healthcare providers were being asked to ensure vaccinations were up-to-date for any individual who was planning to travel to any of these countries.
The ministry recommends infants aged six to 11 months travelling to an outbreak area have one dose of MMR. Any child vaccinated before 12 months of age would still need two further doses of MMR.
All people needed to be vaccinated at least two weeks before travel and people who were not immune and had early symptoms of measles (fever, cough, runny nose, sore eyes and/or a rash) should not travel.
Measles in the Bay of Plenty - by the numbers
Confirmed measles cases by district since January 1, 2019
- Western Bay - 41
- Eastern Bay - 3
- Rotorua - 19
- Taupō – 11
Source: Toi Te Ora
Visit the Toi Te Ora Public Health website for more information.