By THERESA GARNER Pacific affairs reporter

A rubella outbreak in Samoa has claimed the lives of three children, prompting New Zealand health authorities to press for children and women of childbearing age in this country to be vaccinated.

The outbreak of rash and fever, which started in Samoa in June, has spread to neighbouring Tokelau.

Samoa will undertake a mass vaccination programme using the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

Samoan Director-General of Health Dr Eti Enosa said at least three children had died from rubella complications.

Health authorities fear New Zealand's low coverage rates mean another epidemic could take hold here.

The Ministry of Health is to help its Tokelau counterpart in a vaccination campaign against the disease.

The national immunisation programme manager, Dr Claire Mills, said the outbreaks in the Pacific were a timely reminder.

"New Zealand's vaccination coverage is still not adequate."

Rubella, or German measles, is usually a fairly minor illness in children but can be devastating if it strikes women in the early stages of pregnancy. Infection in pregnant women usually leads to congenital rubella syndrome, which can leave babies deaf, blind and intellectually handicapped.

New Zealand has offered free childhood immunisation against rubella since the 1970s, but 20 to 30 per cent of children are not immunised.

There have been 37 cases of rubella in New Zealand this year. The last outbreak hit in 1995, when around 1600 cases were reported.

Tonga was hit by a rubella epidemic last year and introduced immunisation for all children.