Where does the buck stop, Prime Minister?

The time for a national apology for the measles outbreak of 2019 which claimed 83 innocent lives and devastated their families and this nation is long since overdue. 

The Prime Minister’s insistence on never admitting to wrongdoing of any kind has allowed more than a year to go by without one being issued.

Instead of acknowledging the loss of these innocent lives, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi chose to lay the blame at the feet of their parents. 

What should have been a moment of the powerful showing grace and giving comfort to the suffering, turned into the Prime Minister pointing fingers after a devastating epidemic. 

“It has killed many because people have not gone to get vaccinated and others have taken the sick kids to alternative treatment instead of the hospital,” he said in December. 

“That is the main reason why our people are affected by this.”

This always, in our view, belonged somewhere on the spectrum between callousness and cowardice.

Even if the facts supported the Prime Minister’s view, turning a moment of national loss and reflection into a debate about the technicalities of these babies’ deaths was something beneath the dignity of his office. When this episode of Samoa’s history is written it will stain his legacy. 

But now we know better. We know that the Prime Minister was not just speaking crassly to the bereaved; he was speaking misleadingly. =

As front-page stories on the previous two editions of the Samoa Obserever have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the highest levels of this Government were warned that Samoan children were at risk from an encroaching measles outbreak.

The lead story on Sunday’s newspaper showed a Commission of Inquiry into vaccines established by the Government itself warned Samoa was becoming fast encircled by a measles epidemic making its way around the world (“Govt. ignored own vaccine advice months before measles”).

The report, dated 29 March, is co-authored by retired Judge Tuiloma Neroni Slade who was joined by paediatrician Leo’o Dr. John Adams and Lealaiauloto Liai Iosefa-Siitia. 

“To minimise the risks and to ensure as many children as possible are protected, we endorse the suggestion for a ‘mass’ vaccination special programme,” the commissioners concluded. 

“[We] draw attention to the likely risks for Samoa, especially for children without M.M.R. vaccination protection.”

With vaccination rates as low as they were it was plain that the nation’s children were exposed to major health risks and the only answer was a mass vaccination campaign.

How long did it take the Government to implement these recommendations?

Arguably eight months and 60 lives.

Mobile measles clinics had begun to be assembled in November in what could be described as a pro-active campaign. By that stage more than a dozen Samoan children had passed away. 

But it was not, you will recall, until December that the Government embarked on what could truly have been described as a mass vaccination campaign of the kind that the commissioners recommended. 

It was not because such a feat could not have been achieved earlier, had the Government made the safety of our children a national priority and listened to scientific advice. 

December's vaccine campaign, which required people who had not been immunised to place red flags outside their homes, achieved astounding results in a short period of time. 

But by then 60 mostly infant lives had already been claimed. 

It had long been obvious to anyone who had spent some minutes reviewing the data, or overseas reports about the devastating effects of vaccine outbreaks in countries such as the Philippines, that this problem was of the Government’s making.

By 2013, some 90 per cent of Samoan children were receiving their first dose of the measles vaccine.

Even the year before an incident at a Savai’i hospital at which a negligently prepared vaccine caused two infant deaths, this figure had more than halved.

We have sought but never received an adequate explanation for how a drop in vaccine coverage of this magnitude could be explained.

But it is clear that parents can not be at fault for such a sudden failure of a Government-overseen vaccination programme. To try to make them so is morally repugnant. 

The Prime Minister, the father of the nation, trades on a political persona of all-knowingness but he displays none of the other attributes of a good father, namely taking responsibility or showing compassion.

But now the Prime Minister has been painted himself into a corner. The evidence is in black and white and irrefutable that his Government failed to act on warnings that the nation's children were at risk.  

A report in Sunday’s paper shows that the Assistant Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Health, Dr. Robert Thomsen, also wanted vaccinations resumed as soon as possible (“Deputy Health chief wanted measles shots restarted”).

There are now very few rungs on the ladder of responsibility before reaching the Prime Minister: standing between them is only the Director-General of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri and Cabinet. 

We find it difficult to believe Tuilaepa himself was never provided a copy of the report in question or at least briefed on its contents. 

We asked both he and Leausa the same question days before our first report ran and received no answer.

If it was not the Prime Minister, then whoever knew danger of this magnitude was on the horizon and failed to act should immediately resign. 

But even if he were ignorant of the report and its findings, we would remind the Prime Minister his obligation to issue an admission of wrongdoing and apology stands.

We remind him that in July 2018, he personally called for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate deaths arising from wrongly administered measles vaccines in Safotu Hospital that year. 

Moreover, he gave his oath to implement his findings. 

“There are already processes that will determine if negligence is a factor,” he said at the time. 

“And if so, rest assured those processes will be implemented to the letter to ensure that such a tragedy will not be repeated and those responsible will be made to answer. 

“Providing quality health care for our people remains a key Government priority.”

That clearly did not happen.

What is the value of your word, Mr. Prime Minister? Where does the buck stop? The nation deserves an explanation and much more. 

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