Grieving mother: Health Ministry not doing its job

Every day, Lanuola von Heiderbrandt mourns her son all over again. 

Peter was 14-months-old when he was taken from her. He had just learned to walk and run and was even beginning to play football.

But then he contracted measles, just weeks before he was scheduled to receive his second dose of the routine measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine.

He died on White Sunday in 2019, he died in the children’s ward of the hospital. He passed away just days after initially being admitted after twice misdiagnosed with a common cold.

What is common knowledge now but had been kept secret by the Ministry of Health then is that by White Sunday, there were already close to 20 confirmed cases of measles in Samoa, from late August onwards. 

The total number of infections would rise exponentially to reach more than 5,700 cases and claim 83, mostly infant lives like Peter’s. 

As the Samoa Observer revealed this week, the Government had been urged twice about the impending dangers of measles to the nation’s youth and to conduct a mass vaccination campaign. The advice came more than six months before a measles outbreak was officially declared - but the Government failed to act on it. 

As she takes in the news, Mrs. von Heiderbrandt strikes a solemn tone.

“It won’t bring Peter back,” she says. 

Peter was the first of 83 children officially recorded as having died during the measles epidemic. His older sister also became infected but recovered, as did some cousins. 

While too young to have been himself protected from the virus at the time of the outbreak, had national coverage rates been higher, as recommended in the reports, he would have been protected from the virus by herd immunity.

Mrs. von Heiderbrandt and her husband Jordan say their son’s death was followed by insult after insult. 

They didn’t receive a copy of his death certificate for months. No doctor ever fully explained why his infection then caused his death. 

Waiting on his death certificate might have been a non-issue except for the fact that his mother needed it to take leave from work to grieve for her son. 

Around November, a Ministry of Health team visited their home, allegedly to conduct a health assessment. Mrs. von Heiderbrandt said they wanted to test their water, cleanliness, and even stool samples from the family to see what might have contributed to Peter’s death.

“I said this has nothing to do with my son’s death. And where were you before when it happened? Who do you think you are?,” she recalls. 

"This wouldn’t have happened if they had done their job way before, so I sent them off. I told my husband no, how dare they come here. It’s not going to bring back my son.”

An uncle suggested she sue the Ministry of Health for their part in her child’s death. But even today, she and her husband Jordan don’t want to. 

But there was a moment where Mrs. von Heiderbrandt did consider it. 

“So they can do their job, you know. All you have to do is your job. I don’t think they are doing their job.” she said. 

“I don’t want revenge on them, I just want them to do their job properly. If they heard something, saw something that is going to happen, they should act straight away.”

On top of that, online commenters joined Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Maleielegaoi in blaming grieving parents for their loss, accusing them of refusing to vaccinate their children.

But as Mrs. von Heiderbrandt knows, that isn’t true for everyone. 

“Peter was vaccinated. His next appointment was at 15 months, he had his one year vaccination. His vaccination was up to date [as with] all my kids,” she said. 

“I don’t know why they make us parents look bad; they said it’s our fault our kids passed away […] it’s such a headache.”

According to documents obtained by the Samoa Observer, two independent reports from Government entities pushed for a nationwide measles catch-up programme while the contagious disease was spreading globally. 

(Vaccine coverage plummeted to historic lows in 2018 after vaccinations were suspended nation-wide following the July 2018 deaths of two infants at Safotu Hospital minutes after they had received routine vaccines). Years earlier in 2013 as many as 90 per cent of infants were receiving their routine first dose of the vaccination. 

The first cases arrived in Samoa in late August, but it wasn’t until October that a Samoa Observer investigation uncovered a secret isolation unit at the national hospital which had been treating patients for weeks. 

Later that month the Ministry of Health declared an epidemic and began trying to control it.

By December and after 60 deaths, shutting down the country for two days to ensure the entire country was vaccinated. 

Nearly every public servant was enlisted to deliver the nationwide vaccine catch-up, with unvaccinated families told to hang red-flags from their doorways to attract vaccinators. 

“I just want them to do their jobs,” Mrs. von Heiderbrandt said.

“If they had done this before, none of this would have happened.”

A Ministry of Health review into the national immunisation programme at the end of 2018 noted with alarm that vaccine coverage rates were at such low levels that they are “a red signal of loosing (sic) our children tomorrow.”

The report urged the Government to conduct a mass vaccination campaign, in particular for the M.M.R. vaccine that had been on hold since it was linked to the two infants’ deaths. (Negligent preparation of the vaccines to include an expired anaesthetic was later found to be the cause of the infants’ deaths, not the vaccines themselves). 

The second document is a report by a Commission of Inquiry established to review the factors contributing to the infants’ deaths. 

Having read the review, the commissioners also recommended a mass vaccination programme.

“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 report said. 

Since the end of the epidemic, Tuilaepa has not personally expressed his condolences to families who lost loved ones, or to those who suffered in hospital to the disease.

There has been no national memorial, or official plaque installed to remember the 83 lives lost, and the Government will not open an official inquiry into how vaccine coverage got so bad, and why the epidemic spiralled out of control. 

Asked if she thinks she should get an apology, Mrs. von Heiderbrandt smiled. 

“I don’t think he would go that far,” she said of Tuilaepa. “We’re low-key people, we’re not high profile. 

“If it was someone like a business owner, someone that has money… but for us, no.”

“We don’t want anything,” she said, on whether she wants compensation for her loss. 

“We just want them to know how sad we are, how we feel. It feels like yesterday that this happened.  

“When the memories on Facebook pop up, I think to myself, there should be a national memorial day for victims of measles. I don’t know why the Government has not approached the Prime Minister to have one. It’s a must.”

Three-month-old baby Malia sleeps soundly in a rocking chair next to Mrs. von Heiderbrandt while she talks. She bears an uncanny resemblance to her late brother.

“I knew she [was] gonna turn out like him,” she said.  “She reminds us of him. We visit him more often.”

After losing Peter, Mrs. von Heiderbrandt had been avoiding the hospital. The first time she went back was to give birth to Malia in November, nearly a year and a month to the day Peter died. 

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