A nurse prepares a measles-rubella vaccine in Yangon, Myanmar, on November 26 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ANN WANG
A nurse prepares a measles-rubella vaccine in Yangon, Myanmar, on November 26 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ANN WANG

Wellington — The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of a “slide back” in global efforts to eliminate measles on Tuesday, as the death toll from an outbreak that has killed dozens of children in Samoa continues to climb.

A total of 55 people have died since the epidemic began in mid-October, 50 of them children aged four or under, officials in the Pacific nation said Tuesday.

Another 18 infants are critically ill in hospital and the crisis shows no sign of slowing, with 153 new cases in the past 24 hours, taking the national total to 3,881 in a population of 200,000.

Emergency measures, including compulsory mass immunisations and school closures, have done little so far to stop the virus spreading in a country that is particularly vulnerable to measles due to low vaccination rates of about 31%.

WHO medical officer for the western Pacific, Jose Hagan, said it was a grim reminder of the danger posed by “probably the most infectious disease we know of”.

“Unfortunately the case [to] fatality rate of measles is much higher than people realise,” he told Radio New Zealand. “This is quite a severe disease and we just aren’t used to seeing it, so it comes as quite a surprise when we see how fatal it can be.”

He said the fatality rate in Samoa is less than 2% but had been known to reach 5% in developing countries. Hagen said increased access to measles vaccines is estimated to have saved 21-million lives over the past 20 years.

“But we are starting to have a slide back and there are outbreaks happening all over the world in all WHO regions and it’s leading to the virus being exported through international travel,” he said.

Cases have skyrocketed in Europe, leading to Britain, Greece, the Czech Republic and Albania all losing their measles-free status in August. The US narrowly maintained its “measles eliminated” status a few months later, despite experiencing its worst outbreak since 1992.

The WHO has pointed to various reasons for declining immunisation rates including lack of access to healthcare and complacency about the need to vaccinate. Another major factor, cited by the WHO as a reason for the severity of the Samoa outbreak, is misinformation about immunisation from anti-vaccine campaigners.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said this week that vaccination is the only answer to the epidemic. He has ordered the government to cease non-essential operations on Thursday and Friday so public servants can help a mandatory vaccination campaign that aims to give anti-measles injections to everyone aged below 60.

AFP