New Zealand must share blame for Pacific measles outbreak

New Zealand's public health leaders should have increased vaccination rates to prevent devastating outbreaks not just in their own country but those such currently making their way around its Pacific neighbours, vaccine expert Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris said. 

Samoa's Ministry of Health moved to close all preschools and day care centres for children under five years old on Thursday after revealing three people with suspected measles have died. Some 314 cases have been reported to health authorities. 

Dr. Petousis-Harris believes generational gaps in people who have received immunisations against the disease - the demographics who were hit the hardest by the recent measles outbreak in New Zealand - could have and should have been closed. 

The latest numbers show 1942 measles cases this year with 637 people being admitted to hospital. Weekly numbers have been dropping steadily from mid-September; Dr. Petousis Harris believes the epidemic is petering out. 

There may be no end in sight for Samoa. With both recent and historically low immunisation rates, people of all ages are at risk. In just three weeks cases have risen nearly 20 times (there were just 16 suspected cases being treated in an isolation mid last month). 

“It’s up to our health leaders and our Government to ensure that the vaccine program is delivered and delivered well,” Dr. Petousis-Harris said.

“New Zealand has not dealt with the gaps in immunity we have had in our older age groups… This was preventable had we actively done something about that.”

She said a targeted programme focussed on those gaps of immunised populations, such as in South Auckland where most of the cases of measles have come from would have been effective and also saved a great deal of money.

It is also now too late to put a stop to any travelling between New Zealand and Samoa in order to prevent the virus spreading further, Dr. Petousis-Harris said, though travellers should still ensure they are vaccinated before getting on the plane. 

“The chances of exporting it have gone down in the last few weeks so it’s perhaps a bit late.”

Dr. Petousis-Harris said that the potential for mass outbreak of the disease in Samoa would not have been affected by the suspension of the vaccine programme last year because the country had recently such low vaccination long before the Savaii deaths that caused the suspension. 

In August, two nurses were sentenced to five years’ jail for their negligent preparation of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine that caused the death of two infants last July. 

Vaccine coverage needs to be a sustained 95 per cent of the population and, with the exception of 2013, Samoa has not seen such coverage in over a decade, she said. 

Avoiding having measles enter the country at all was the only way to prevent a rapid spread of the disease, Dr. Petousis-Harris said.

In 1997, a measles epidemic struck New Zealand but health authorities were more prepared. They had predicted the epidemic and ran an extensive immunisation campaign to prevent a large number of immunisation cases.

“We cut the epidemic off short,” she said.

“The difference [with this year's epidemic is] we did not have a mass campaign, we didn’t have enough vaccines, and we are still rationing vaccines even now.”

She nonetheless said Samoa's suspension of its vaccine programme was "frustrating".

“They knew [of its potential negative health effects] from the beginning," she said. 

The nurse who wrongly mixed the M.M.R vaccine powder with expired anaesthetic by accident, came clean about her mistake two weeks after the incident.

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