Anti-vaccination activity must be stopped

We’ve been loath to acknowledge their views too often lest they are exposed to a wider audience. But we cannot ignore them any longer. 

We find ourselves in broad agreement the views expressed by Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi on today’s front page. 

The ongoing manipulation of the public opinion by opportunistic - or even genuinely misguided - anti-vaccination activists and proponents of non-clinical cures in favour of hospital treatments for measles flouts the ban imposed by the state of emergency. And it must now be brought to an end under its purview - swiftly.

We have called in these pages for an escalation of the Government’s approach to the state of emergency in the name of limiting the duration of this outbreak.

The recent Police response has been admirably pro-active in its commitment to dispersing public gatherings involving young people: the biggest single threat to the spreading of infection.

There was much that was laudable in the statements made by the Deputy Police Commissioner, Papali’i Monalisa Tiai – Keti to this newspaper yesterday.

“Children’s lives are in your hands. [The Police] reiterate that by working together as parents, villages, church and as a whole community we can achieve a safe Samoa,” she said. 

“Samoa Police is endeavoring to continue to provide advice and warnings without having to resort to other enforcement measures.

“This is a much more effective and practical approach during this health crisis.”

We heartily agree.

There was no shortage of questions being asked on these pages in the early stages of the measles epidemic. 

Those must be answered. But the time for that is when the battle against the virus ravaging our community and taking young lives is over.

As Dr. Helen Petousis Harris, a vaccine expert from the University of Auckland makes clear in an opinion piece overleaf, the human costs of not working together at this time are immense.

It reveals that statistical modelling suggests a doubling of infections and spike in the death toll from 42 to 70 is mathematically likely, depending on the success of the state of emergency and mass vaccination campaigns.

The mass vaccination campaign, begun only on November 20, has, on the Government’s account led to some 50,000 new people achieving vaccinations. 

For that achievement of vaccinating one-quarter of the population the Government deserves due praise. 

But many still stand in the way of achieving total vaccine coverage; some local; some overseas; and often they work in partnership. One of those is anti-vaccination campaigners includes the intensely vacuous overseas Instagram influencer, Taylor Winterstein, who shredded her meagre credibility left this week by comparing a vaccination campaign to Hitler’s Germany.

But there is no doubt no need for further study about the harmful impact of overseas campaigners on falling vaccination rates, as the W.H.O. pointed out earlier this week they are driving down vaccination rates in Samoa and costing lives. Often they often coordinate anti-vaccine social media campaigns from wealthy enclaves in cities such as Sydney and Los Angeles where such views have become faddish. 

Little can be done about these malign messages but education.

However, the local advocates who benefit from their campaigns can be stopped. And should be, whether through formal legal warnings, forcibly closing their businesses, or more even, perhaps, the Prime Minsiter's favoured option of jail; that is not for us to decide. 

But those who need to be stopped include prominent local social media agitators; those who encourage traditional or alternative healing in replacement of clinical treatment and vaccination (as Tuilaepa noted the Traditional Healers’ Association advocates vaccinations). And as we have argued before in these pages bringing an amenable group of Samoan healers on-board may be one of the Ministry of Health’s more valuable allies in reaching vaccine skeptics if they can be brought around to cooperation in the form of offering their treatments in complement to clinical outreach programmes. 

More dangerous campaigners include those who have been been attributing curative properties alkalised Kangen water; a claim disowned by the manufacturer's Japanese parent company. 

The sad thing is that many families are still flocking to these alternative measles cures and placing their hopes in them and - sometimes tragically - delaying hospital treatment with fatal consequences. 

Its sellers include Fritz Alai'asa - who has threatened to sue this newspaper for applying scrutiny to his claims - and another believer, who was only last night promoting his product on RNZ in New Zealand. Children have been lined up around their clinics and Mr. Alai'asa claims to have dispensed his magical water to 2000 people in little over a fortnight. 

The cost of such widespread misinformation can now be measured in human lives.

Despite their overall success in mass vaccination in the last 12 days the Ministry is still registering low turnouts among young children aged 6 months to 4 years of age, the very group that makes the largest component of the national death toll. 

What the nature of the punishment for such behaviour in express defiance of the orders of the state of emergency is not for us to say. 

We contacted the Attorney General for comment today but did not hear back. One obstacle to initiating formal legal warnings - or the Tuilaepa’s preferred option of imprisonment - against such people is the requirement for a criminal complaint to first be made against them.

That provided by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Police should be impetus enough for an emergency measure that is now past due. 

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