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N.Z. committed to Samoa's measles recovery, says Minister Sepuloni

A daughter of Vailele who has become a New Zealand Member of Parliament has assured that Samoa and New Zealand will be partners for the long-haul during the recovery from the measles epidemic

Here in Samoa for a summer family visit, the Associate Minister of Pacific Peoples and Arts, Culture and Heritage, and the Minister for Social Development and Disability Issues, Carmel Sepuloni, made time to visit the staff helping the nation as it recovers from the measles epidemic.

“Today was about being able to acknowledge the staff on the ground for the work they have done, being able to see first-hand what the response is like now during the recovery period, from people who have been on the ground during the measles outbreak […] it was great to acknowledge their hard work," the Minister said.

“The feedback has been that […] the medical professionals here in Samoa have been amazing, the contribution made by other countries has been crucial to the effort but really it has been a collaborate effort".

Ms. Sepuloni said she wanted to take time to thank some of the frontline team for their efforts during the health emergency.

One of the largest ever contingent of international emergency medical teams landed in Samoa during November and December, during which the Government of Samoa declared a state of emergency and restricted movement for children and pregnant women.

It was the Australian Medical Assistance Team’s longest ever deployment to any nation.

“With respect to the New Zealand and the Pacific medical professionals we’ve sent over, including the Samoan doctors mobilised into a network, it makes it feel more like communities helping communities as opposed to some sort of technical overseas development assistance," the Minister said.

Among the deployed doctors are Samoan doctors from Australia and New Zealand who are working in small teams until March. Ms. Sepuloni said she understands their efforts have felt more like a homecoming. 

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi has hailed the Samoan diaspora as a resource for the nation that should be tapped into, Ms. Sepuloni said.

“I think this was a really good example of that happening,” she added. 

“The spirit of all those that have been involved is really positive and they are continuing do to the work on the ground. It’s been good to meet with them and talk about that. 

Ms. Sepuloni also tried to give blood after learning the blood bank in Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital was running low but was ineligible. New Zealand High Commissioner Trevor Matheson volunteered in her stead, and donated a pint of blood to the cause. 

In the four-and-a-half months since it landed in Samoa, measles has infected from than 5700 people and killed at least 83, most of them children under four years old.

A mass vaccination campaign began which included a two-day nationwide shut down for a mobile campaign to take place, which Government reports resulted in at least 40,000 people being vaccinated bringing the total herd immunity to 89 per cent.

Today, the state of emergency is over and immunity stands at 95 per cent, the figure the World Health Organisation say is the only safe prevention for epidemics. The Ministry of Health is working towards a recovery plan and the nation’s hospitals are slowly returning to normal activities.

Last week it was reported there were 16 cases of measles at T.T.M Hospital, including four critically ill children in intensive care. 

New Zealand will continue to support Samoa as it recovers, but how exactly that will take shape has not been announced yet.

“I am going to be really interested to see from a New Zealand perspective how we continue to support during the recovery phase,” Ms. Sepuloni said.

“The measles has put so much pressure on the health system, as it would in any country, so it’s about making sure we are able to provide as much support as possible.”

Ms. Sepuloni said no one in her family or friend network were affected by the measles epidemic, which she is grateful for.

As a Samoan living in New Zealand, the Minister said watching the epidemic impact her home, and its young children especially was devastating.

“It’s devastating for Samoa, for Samoans outside Samoa, for anyone with a heart really to witness,” she said.

Measles struck New Zealand in 2019 too, with 2191 infections and 772 people admitted to hospital since January last year. That epidemic is well and truly waning with just six confirmed cases reported so far this year across Waitemata, Counties Manukau, Taranaki and Wellington’s capital and coast District Health Boards. 

Ms. Sepuloni said her Government is addressing vaccine coverage rates and how to improve them, not only immediately but also long term, with Maori and Pasifika people as a specific focus.

“You can’t just have a whizz bang attempt to get everyone immunised and think that in five years from now that will continue,” she said.

The groups account for all four of the latest reported cases of measles, as well as the majority of all cases and hospital admissions so far.

“There are equity issues in our health system in New Zealand with respect to reaching certain communities and Maori and Pacific have had a lower immunisation rate than others so we will just have to continue to work on that."

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