Mother remembers losing child to measles
On 13 October last year, Lanuola von Heiderbrandt, of Alamagoto, had her world turned upside down. Her 14-month old baby, Peter von Heiderbrandt, became one of Samoa’s first child to be lost to the spreading measles epidemic, which went on to claim 82 other lives.
Close to a year on after that fateful day, Mrs. von Heiderbrandt remembers it like it was yesterday.
It is even more difficult as Samoa celebrates White Sunday.
“What is there to celebrate when my son will not be with us this time around?” she said in an interview with the Samoa Observer, while trying to fight back tears.
“Other than my other children who are celebrating White Sunday with me and my husband’s relatives, for me, I will not be okay. I don’t know when I will ever get through this trauma.”
For Mrs. von Heiderbrandt, who is nine months pregnant and is also a mother to two other children, the memory of her son’s passing remains fresh.
But she says her only hope of healing from the trauma is the impending arrival of her unborn child.
“That’s what everyone is saying, that just maybe, only when I get to see this baby in my belly, I will be able to heal this pain that has stroked my heart for a very long time,” she added. “We were hoping it’s a boy so we could name him Peter, but it turned out the other way and my other son, even kept asking for a baby brother to play with.
“We just said okay we'll give you a baby brother after this one.”
The grief-stricken mother’s other children have not been to school since their baby brother’s passing last October, though she hopes they will be in classes next year.
On Saturday afternoon, on the eve of this year's White Sunday, Mrs. von Heiderbrandt was at home when the Samoa Observer visited.
With her two children in tow, Ulalei and Lloyd, she moved around the house. Asked how she has made it through since her child’s passing, she said it was possible due to the love of God, and she is also back at work after taking eight months off.
Mrs. von Heiderbrandt’s husband, Jordan von Heiderbrandt, works as a ship engineer and is scheduled to return from Tokelau on the White Sunday evening.
The loss of his 14-month-old son has also had an impact on him and his absence doesn’t seem real.
Speaking to the Samoa Observer last year, after his son’s death, he said: “Sometimes, during my job, I pause and just sit there and think about it: the feeling of my son being gone again, and again and again. It was unreal, knowing when I return I won’t be seeing his face again."
Samoa’s measles epidemic raged for just over four months, reaching a peak in mid-November before the mass vaccination campaigns started to show results.
It is among the world’s most infectious diseases, and the World Health Organisation recommends countries maintain a 95 per cent vaccination rate to avoid outbreaks.
In early October, the Samoa Observer revealed an isolation unit in the National Hospital had been established and 16 people were kept in quarantine while being treated for measles, though the Ministry of Health had yet to disclose this to the public.
By October 16, three days after Peter breathed his last breath, the Ministry of Health officially declared an outbreak of measles. There were already 137 recorded cases.
The Government sprang into action, setting up vaccine clinics in tents, community halls and churches. By mid-November, schools were being closed and a state of emergency declared, with the National Emergency Operation Centre activated to lead the disaster management.
By then, 16 children had died and over 1,200 cases recorded. By the end of the epidemic in early January, 5,707 people would become infected, many of them suffering invasive and intensive medical treatment to cure them of pneumonia and other severe illnesses, often hitting them two or three at a time.
As well as Samoa’s own national efforts, the global community flooded into the islands to help. Emergency Medical Teams from half a dozen countries arrived between November and January to relieve the local staff, deliver specialized care and in the case of Australia, build two new isolation units for intensive care.
A paediatric nurse from London, Becky Platt told the Samoa Observer in December that for most of the international delegation, the epidemic was like nothing they had seen before.
“The younger you are, the more sick you are likely to be,” she said. “The severity here is like nothing most of us have experienced before.”
“Really, they are tiny babies and any amount of insult to the chest is devastating at their age.”
At one peak of the epidemic in late November, the Government reported six deaths in a day.
The measles epidemic, while devastating, brought out the best of Samoa’s disaster response and compassionate community assistance. Entire new non-government organisations were established to collect donations of food and pampers for families with their babies in the hospital, and groups dedicated themselves to feeding the troops on the fronting.
Organisations in New Zealand, Australia and even America collected donations and shipped them to Samoa, much of which in the form of medical supplies for the hospitals which were rapidly running out of essential equipment like soap.
Church groups even donated beds and cots for the hospital wards bursting at the seams, and community groups around the world held fundraiser concerts featuring loved Samoan artists to send money home to Samoa.
The United Nations helped Samoa establish a global appeal for funds and technical assistance, which is still open today.
In late December, with the mass vaccination campaign still not slowing down the epidemic enough, the Government closed down the entire country for two days and sent dozens of vans out to vaccinate children and adults in their homes.
Inspired by the Old Testament, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi asked families who needed vaccines to hang red flags in front of their homes so the nurses would know where to stop.
Families hung anything they could find, from red lavalavas to trousers, hats and even dresses, to draw the lifesaving inoculation to their doors.
For his part, Tuilaepa has struggled to accept blame on his Government for the epidemic and the devastation it caused. Throughout the state of emergency he urged parents to take responsibility for themselves and their children, and even reported to have seen red flags outside homes near the hospital.
Samoa’s vaccine coverage rates in the last decade have not been good. But they were slowly improving when a badly mixed vaccine caused two infants to die, and the entire programme was suspended for the duration of the two responsible nurses’ court case.
Majority of the children who were infected and died of measles should have been vaccinated during this suspension period.
After the mass campaign, Samoa’s measles coverage rates have radically improved, with the World Health Organisation reporting 87 per cent of eligible children had their first dose in 2019, and 44 per cent had their second, up from just 13 per cent in 2018.
But Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre Dr. Nikki Turner says with measles making a global resurgence in the wake of rampant misinformation campaigns online, Samoa must stay vigilant it does not let coverage rates wane lest it import the virus again.
“We thought we were going to move towards eradicating measles and what we now know is we need to put a lot more effort in for every country, to strengthen their primary healthcare, to get coverage up and then keep it up over time,” she told the Samoa Observer last December.
“It is a responsibility for all of us and unfortunately Samoa in our part of the world has got the brunt of this.”
To date, Tuilaepa has insisted he will not order a Commission of Inquiry into the epidemic, saying he knows perfectly well why it happened.
In the lead up to the General Election next April, the Tautua Samoa Party said it would conduct an inquiry if elected.
Meanwhile the Samoa Association of General Practitioners has been preparing their own review of the crisis.
In February, Association President Le Mamea Dr. Limbo Fiu said there is no point trying to change the Government’s mind, and instead the doctors will do what is “achievable.
“These kinds of threats will not be a one off, everything is changing around the world and we must prepare,” Le Mamea said.
“We just decided we are going to focus our energies on what we do usually in these kinds of situations, which is do our own review, focusing on aspects of the epidemic […] We have to be quite practical and do things we can actually do and achieve.”
*Additional reporting from Sapeer Mayron