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Samoa shuts schools, declares emergency as measles kills 6

WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> Samoa has closed all its schools, banned children from public gatherings and mandated that everybody get vaccinated after declaring an emergency due to a measles outbreak that has so far killed six people.

For the past three weeks, the Pacific island nation of 200,000 people has been in the grip of a measles epidemic that has been exacerbated by low immunization rates.

Schools were closed from Monday after the government declared an emergency on Saturday. The National University of Samoa also told students to stay home and said exams scheduled for this week had been indefinitely postponed.

Health authorities said most of those who died are under the age of 2. They counted 716 measles cases reported, with nearly 100 people still hospitalized with 15 in intensive care.

Samoa’s Director General of Health Leausa Dr. Take Naseri said in a news conference last week that he expects the epidemic will get worse. He said that only about two-thirds of Samoans had been vaccinated, leaving the others vulnerable to the virus.

But figures from the World Health Organization and UNICEF indicate that measles immunization rates among Samoan infants have fallen steeply from over 70% in 2013 to under 30% last year.

Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, said the Samoan government halted its immunization program for several months last year after two infants died from a medical mishap involving a vaccine.

She said it was disappointing that people in New Zealand who were carrying the virus had traveled to Samoa, possibly sparking the outbreak. She said New Zealand knew it had immunity gaps.

“But we didn’t deal with the problem,” she said.

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