Measles' spread to Samoa now 'inevitable': expert

It now appears “inevitable” that a record measles outbreak gripping Auckland will spread to Samoa, a leading New Zealand expert has warned. 

New Zealand is in the midst of its worst measles outbreak in two decades as the number of cases in its largest city, Auckland, approached 800 over the weekend.

In an interview with the Samoa Observer on Sunday Dr. Helen Aspasia Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, said the disease now appears certain to reach Samoa.

“It is inevitable,” Dr. Petousis-Harris said.

“Measles is the most infectious disease known to man.

“A lot of the cases [in this recent outbreak] have come from places such as South Auckland where we have a very high population of people from the Pacific, including Samoa.”

Government statistics show nearly half of the 180,000 visitors to Samoa in 2018 came from New Zealand as the frequency of flights from Auckland increased in the same year.

The warning comes against the backdrop of an unexpected surge in global infections in measles and reports of declining rates of vaccination in Samoa.

A World Health Organisation and UNICEF report published in July found that infant vaccination in Samoa fell sharply across all categories last year.

“That decline in reported coverage may be partly explained by an interruption in vaccination amid public concern following two deaths related to [a negligently prepared vaccine,” the report found.

The routine Measles, Mumps and Rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine program was suspended after two nurses were found to have negligently prepared and administered a vaccination mixed with expired anaesthetic which caused the death of two one-year-olds. 

The nurses were sentenced to five years’ jail for negligence causing manslaughter. 

But the Ministry of Health has confirmed that the M.M.R. vaccination program is entirely safe. It resumed in April this year and the Ministry said it would make sure any patients who missed out during the program’s suspension would be covered. 

New Zealand’s outbreak comes against the backdrop of an unexpected dramatic global resurgence in measles infections.

Some 90,000 people were infected in Europe in the first half of this year, compared to just over 44,000 in the same period the previous year, the WHO said in a statement last month.  

“In New Zealand there’s been around [4 out of 10 cases where patients] have been so ill they’ve needed to be hospitalised; in some cases they have needed intensive care,”  Dr. Petousis-Harris said.  

“Hospitals are quite concerned we’re going to see a death.”

On August 20 a passenger on an Air New Zealand flight arriving in Auckland from Samoa was placed in isolation after arriving unaware that they were infected with measles.

New Zealand’s Associate Minister for Health Julie Anne Genter said in a statement last week: "If you’re thinking of travelling into or out of Auckland, you should make sure you're vaccinated at least two weeks before you go.

"This includes children from 12 months old.”

Dr. Petousis-Harris said keeping vaccination rates high was the only reliable protection against the disease. She noted New Zealand had historically lagged in making the M.M.R. vaccine available despite recently high levels of overall coverage. 

“That disproportionately affected Pacific people […] so they have even lower coverage,” she said.

The effect of that lag has seen older patients, aged from their teens to their ‘40s, affected by the recent outbreak she said.

Symptoms of measles include a high fever, runny nose, cough and sore red eyes.

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