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From Israel to help Samoa

The leader of Israel’s Emergency Medical Team, Dr. Itai Pessach, believes immunisation should be seen as a community obligation, not an act of individual choice.

Dr. Pessach and his team from the Sheba Medical Centre have been in Samoa for a week working at the Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital.

As well as paediatric and intensive care nurses and doctors, they also brought with them a paediatric pulmonologist (lung specialist), something the hospital has not had.

The Samoa measles epidemic is now in its fourth month. 

More than 5,000 people have been infected, 1,632 hospitalised and 72 people, mostly babies, have died.

Unlike its Pacific neighbours, Samoa has been particularly hard hit by the worlds most contagious disease because of its historically low vaccine coverage rates, at its worst just last year with only 31 per cent of babies receiving their first dose of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and 13 per cent receiving their second.

“What is happening here should be a wakeup call, a global wake up call for the importance of global immunisation,” Dr. Pessach, who is the director the Paediatric Hospital at Sheba Medical Centre, the largest hospital in Israel.

“All of us are responsible to one another.”

The World Health Organisation recommends 95 per cent of a population be vaccinated against preventable diseases in order to protect the people who cannot get vaccinated. That includes babies too young, elderly or sick people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

“When you are deciding not to vaccinate your child you are not just deciding for yourself and for your child, you also make a decision for the rest of your community,” Dr. Pessach said.

“You are actually purposely deciding to risk people around you. I think this is something people should contemplate on when they decide not to vaccinate.”

Majority of the babies who have died have been under the age of five. At least nine were under six months old and too young to vaccinate, while at least 19 were between six and 12 months and under normal conditions would have been vaccinated at 12 months old.

The at least 33 children between one and four years old may have missed their first or second doses while the measles vaccine programme was suspended from August to April 2019. 

Becky Platt, a nurse from the United Kingdom Emergency Medical Team working in the emergency paediatric unit outside the hospital has said majority of cases she has seen are below two years old.

But skipped doses don’t account for all children who have been lost to the disease. Dr. Pessach said communities need to “look around a little bit” and choose vaccines over personal preference.

“All the religions say the same thing, doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim, we have a commitment to our community and vaccination is part of it. 

“There are people that claim that vaccines are either an unnecessary harm or that they are not safe which is really bogus.”

To those who claim vaccines are unsafe, Dr. Pessach said history has proven them to not only be safe, but essential to human development and advancement.

In the future, Samoa is looking to make all childhood vaccines a prerequisite for school entry. But Dr. Pessach said it is still important to remember why it is a community responsibility, even if it is mandatory.

Eventually there will be more diseases, and more vaccines to counter them. And then people will need to know why they are doing their part to stop the spread of fatal viruses, he said.

“We sometimes forget we have this responsibility for our neighbours, our brothers and sisters… this is a wakeup call for all of us.”

It is Dr. Pessach’s first deployment with the humanitarian department of his hospital, and he will not stay for the entire stint but leave his team after the first week to return to run the Paediatric Hospital.

He said it has been a moving and significant experience, especially seeing the work done on the ground by Samoa’s healthcare staff.

“We were amazed by the work these people (Samoans) have been doing for the past few weeks and by the international collaboration. It’s really heart-warming to see how this all comes together to provide the best possible care under the circumstances to the people of Samoa. 

“This is one of the things I am going to bring back to Israel with me, is this message. This all started because of people thinking of themselves and not vaccinating. 

“On the other hand, once the crisis happens, you see everyone come together and you see all the good that comes out of it. Locally, people doing what they are doing here for weeks and without sleeping, just caring for others. You see all the voluntary work, the international effort all to care for one another, and this is beautiful.”

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