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The tragedy of the measles crisis, a year later

A story published on the front page of the Samoa Observer on Friday titled “The measles outbreak: One year today” brought back very sad memories. The pain, agony and the heartache this nation went through as a result of the tragic loss of lives remains as acute as if it just happened yesterday.

Indeed, a year ago certainly does not feel that far away especially when the people of this country are still trying to pick up the pieces from a crisis that could and should have been prevented.

The number of fatalities sticks to memory like superglue and cannot be erased. Eighty-three precious lives, many of them innocent children who had so much to live for, were taken in what would be remembered as one of the worst health crises to have hit this country.

But how did this all come about? Well the story in question gives a pretty good reminder about the initial stages when the first case of measles was identified at the Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital on 28 August 2019. Six weeks later, the Government finally declared there was an outbreak and it was two and a half months since the first case that a State of Emergency (S.O.E.) was declared.

What’s interesting is that between 28 August and 13 October 2019 when measles claimed its first infant victim, Samoa had recorded 137 cases and still the authorities tried to keep it quiet. On 12 October 2019, the Samoa Observer published a story on an investigation it had carried out that confirmed 16 people were being treated in an isolation ward at T.T.M. Hospital.

Four days and another 80 cases later, the Ministry of Health finally declared there was an epidemic. When an S.O.E. was declared on 15 November 2019, the number of cases had hit 700. This number only grew considerably worse in the next few months with devastating and deadly consequences. When the Director General of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, was asked why the Ministry of Health had announced the outbreak sooner, he said: “We don’t want to panic the people, we were not sure. There is no need to cause unnecessary panic amongst the population.” Now hold that thought for a minute.

But let’s wind the clock back a couple of years. In 2018, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) rung the alarm bells when it found that only 31 percent of infants in Samoa had received the measles vaccine. The Government was clearly warned that the low immunization rate left unvaccinated children extremely vulnerable to an outbreak.

As if that wasn’t enough to raise red flags, Samoa had plenty of warning about measles outbreaks where it was happening near and far. In far away places, there were cases in Europe, Philippines and in Africa where hundreds of people had been killed.

But it was an outbreak in New Zealand that opened the door to measles in Samoa, setting off a chain of events that can now only be described as a tragedy of massive proportions.

Which begs many questions that have remained unanswered. A year after the beginning of the outbreak, they are questions worth asking again in the hope that the answers will avoid a repeat of the tragedy that was.

With all these red flags, warnings and alarm bells being rung left, right and centre about the low immunization rates and outbreaks near and far, why did the Government wait? Why did the Ministry of Health not see fit to do something to improve Samoa’s woeful vaccination rates when international agencies such the W.H.O. issued the warning? And even when the measles started breaking out in the country, why did it take the Ministry of Health nearly three months to declare an S.O.E. so they could implement mandatory vaccination? There are many other unanswered questions but we will stop here for now.

The point is that while we cannot bring back the lives that have been lost, and perhaps some people would argue that it’d be best to try and move on, we cannot ignore the failures responsible for what happened.

We need to identify them, hold them to account and do what’s necessary to ensure this is not repeated. Something happened to Samoa’s vaccination policy, which led to the woefully low percentage, and this needs to be explained and accounted for. The families who are hurting deserve nothing but the truth.

This is why the call for a Commission of Inquiry by several highly qualified Samoan experts – including the former Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi – remains as relevant today as when they were made in the aftermath of the crisis.

“There is a Samoan proverb, e te fiu e fa’alafi le tama’i moa i lalo o le tanoa,a e ‘io’io mai lava. It means however much you try to hide the truth, the truth will always reveal itself,” Tui Atua said.

“It seems there won’t be a Commission of Inquiry because the Government vehemently resists a Commission of Inquiry.  However as much you try to conceal the truth, eventually it will find a way to expose itself.”

Well then, only time will tell. Let’s wait and see.

But we just can’t stop thinking about Leausa’s response last year while the measles epidemic was developing when he said the Ministry of Health did not want to cause “unnecessary panic amongst the population.”

It’s ironic because when he was asked recently about the Government’s preparations for the coronavirus, he said: “[The National Emergency Operations Centre] has been meeting since we got this news and we are working hard on it but we don’t want to create unnecessary panic to our people.”

Don’t you think this latest response sounded eerily similar to what he said during the measles?

Have a wonderful Sunday Samoa, stay safe and God bless!



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