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Government acknowledges uphill battle to restore vaccine trust

The Director General of the Ministry of Health (M.O.H.), Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, has acknowledged that the Government is facing an uphill battle to re-establish public trust in its vaccination programmes after new figures show declining vaccination rates. 

Speaking to media on Tuesday, Leausa said the Government recognised that public trust in the government's vaccination programme had been affected and it had to make up ground: 

"You all know there is a lot of parents hesitant to bring their children for vaccination," he said. 

"We really need that confidence to be built up and solidified in the minds of the mothers and the parents for the success of this programme."

His comments came after warnings that a measles outbreak affecting some 800 patients in New Zealand appeared likely to spread to Samoa and the release of new figures showing rates of Measles, Mumps and Rubella (M.M.R.) vaccines among infants had fallen steadily over five years. 

"This is just one type of outbreak and it’s threatening our shores. We [need to] give them [parents] a lot of time to regain their confidence," he said.

Leausa said the government was seeking to ensure that children who had missed out on routine M.M.R. vaccinations during a nine-month moratorium following the deaths of two infants in Savai'i found to have been given a lethally and negligently prepared injection.

Some 46 per cent of the children registered in the Moto’otua Hospital aged over one year have now been given the vaccine, Leausa said. Figures for District Hospitals were not provided. 

Leausa said Samoa was not facing a measles outbreak and was taking steps to stop the disease.

“Our alert has been elevated because of what is happening in New Zealand," he said. 

“We have more than eight flights to New Zealand a week, there is a lot of travelling.”

Samoa is surveying the borders at the airport and the ports to monitor any potential introduction of the contagious disease, and said the vaccine is available at every single hospital for anyone who missed their dose, or is unsure if they are vaccinated or not.

The vaccine program was suspended in August 2018, after two one-year-old’s died following vaccination as a result of a negligently prepared vaccine.

But since then, confidence in the vaccine programme is shot.

The World Health Organisation and United Nations Children’s Fund, analysing M.O.H data reports that in 2018, just 31 per cent of infants are immunised against measles, five years after 90 percent coverage was achieved in 2013.

Parents will need time to regain their confidence in the vaccine program, Leausa said, but the measles outbreak in New Zealand will surely be convincing many of the importance of immunisation.

“This is also an indirect blessing for our program,” he said.

“There will be a portion of people, or parents, who will change their minds, who will now look at the impact and severity of measles, and vaccination.”

Anti-vaccination movements online have been blamed for causing some of the lapse in vaccination coverage, and in July, the World Health Organisation demanded social media organisations do more to prevent misinformation on vaccines spreading via their sites.

Dr. Nicola Turner, who is on the W.H.O vaccine advisory board said social media increases fears about vaccines. Speaking to the New Zealand Herald, she said social media needs to: “pick up its act and become socially responsible. 

“If we have public health programmes with very clear science behind them that every country in the world and the international agency supports, then it beholds these social media companies to be responsible about the messages within them," she said. 

Health communication expert and Harvard Kennedy School senior fellow Scott Ratzan told TVNZ Breakfast that the spread of lies on social media amounts to “misinformation malpractice.

“[The MMR vaccine] has prevented millions of deaths around the world and today, we're facing this misinformation malpractice that's hurting everybody,” 

But the M.O.H is not monitoring social media for misinformation on vaccines, saying it is too expensive and time consuming to do.

“We don’t have time for social media. We really don’t have time to do monitoring,” Leausa said.

“We have a disease surveillance team that monitors diseases not only in Samoa, the Pacific but globally. But social media, I don’t think so.”

Leausa would not say how long he thought it would take for confidence levels to rise again, or for Samoa to reach higher vaccine coverage levels again, saying: “nothing is 100 per cent". 

“There are over 12 vaccine preventable diseases, and each vaccine program involves a lot of trust in the system," he said. 

"It’s quite a challenge for the mother and the child and even us, trying to convince the family."

But the outbreak in New Zealand is threatening Samoa’s safety, he said, and he hopes anyone who was hesitant about vaccinating their children will be thinking seriously about doing so.

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