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P.M. Ardern dodges measles question

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has refused to be drawn into questions on whether her country bears any responsibility for the fatal measles epidemic in Samoa.

Twenty people, majority of them children, have already died with authorities fearing the worse. Measles is also spreading to other Pacific countries.

The Ministry of Health in Samoa attributes the outbreak to a traveller from New Zealand, who had come to Samoa for a church meeting.

But neither Prime Minister Ardern, nor her country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (M.F.A.T.) would be drawn into the question of responsibility.

Speaking during her post-Cabinet press conference, Ms. Ardern assured that her Government stands ready to help Samoa, as they have been doing since the beginning of epidemic.

 “We of course have an open flow of people but we see our responsibility supporting Samoa as they deal with the outbreak and we are doing that actively," Ms. Ardern said.

A spokesperson from M.F.A.T. said New Zealand is committed to helping with the response to the crisis.

 “International travel means that measles can spread quickly from country to country,” the spokesperson said.

“Any country that does not have herd immunity is vulnerable to the outbreaks of measles that are currently occurring.

 “The nature of measles is that it is highly infectious and unfortunately people can be infected before they are aware they are infected.”

To that end, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health is trying to close measles immunisation gaps across the country, something they believer will protect Pacific Islands from outbreaks in the future.

With nearly 1650 cases of measles in Samoa and 20-related deaths, the highly contagious virus has been spreading like wildfire since late August this year.

Vaccination rates across Samoa have been in freefall for the last six years, after finally achieving a desirable 90 per cent of 12 month olds getting their first dose of measles containing vaccine in 2013.

Since then, rates dropped to 68 per cent in 2016, 58 per cent the next year and finally just 31 per cent of children were vaccinated in 2018, leaving the most vulnerable group of children exposed to the disease.

Nineteen children under four years old have died in this epidemic. Five were under six months and too young to be vaccinated, four were six to 11 months, and ten between one and four years old.

 “Our sympathies are with everyone affected by the outbreak,” the spokesperson said.

 “New Zealand is working closely with the Samoan Government to contain the outbreak and to treat people who are ill.”

In New Zealand, the measles epidemic that broke out in January has seen 2066 cases of measles to date (15 November) with 715 hospitalisations.

More than half of those cases came from the Counties Manukau district health board alone, and 405 people have been hospitalised.

Maori and Pasifika people were most affected, with 833 Pasifika people infected, and 504 Maori.

Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris, vaccinologist at the University of Auckland said if New Zealand had worked harder to close immunity gaps in vulnerable populations like the Pasifika of South Auckland, the epidemics of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji may not have happened.

 “Where we had that immunity gap, that is where a lot of those cases and a lot of transmission happened,” she said.

 “It’s up to our health leaders and our government to ensure that the vaccine program is delivered and delivered well.

 “I guess to a greater or lesser extent we have failed to do that well enough to prevent this from happening.

The M.F.A.T spokesperson said immunisation coverage for childhood vaccines has improved since very low rates in the 1990’s but people born during the 1990’s remain susceptible.

 “The New Zealand Ministry [of Health] is looking at a combination of activities that will address the existing immunity gap amongst young adults as well as focusing on infant immunisation rates. This work commenced before the measles outbreak occurred,” the spokesperson said.

 “Recent drops in infant immunisation rates are due to a combination of access issues as well as hesitancy or delaying vaccination.

 “The New Zealand Ministry of Health has been working on identifying what the barriers are to infant vaccination and liaising with District Health Boards on this as the reasons will vary across the country.”

There are now nine confirmed cases of measles in Fiji, more than 177 cases in Tonga and two in American Samoa.

A single case of measles can infect another 12 to 18 people, Dr. Petousis-Harris said.

 “If you have got a lot of people who are not immune who have come into contact with the person, then potentially than can escalate very, very quickly in a matter of weeks.

In 2018, Fiji had a vaccination coverage rate of 94 per cent, and Tonga had 99 per cent.

But when it was discovered 43 previously vaccinated people had contracted measles, the Ministry of Health said it will revaccinate at least 20,000 people who may have been given an impotent dose.

There have been no deaths in the Pacific Islands except for Samoa. In New Zealand, two pregnancies were lost due to measles in the mothers, Dr. Petousis-Harris said.

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