In November 1918, the cargo and passenger ship Talune travelled to Apia, Samoa from Auckland, carrying a number of passengers who had pneumonic influenza. From these passengers stemmed the biggest pandemic Samoa had ever seen. With around 8,500 deaths, over 20% of the country’s population at the time had been wiped out.
Just over a century later, New Zealand would once again bring over a disease that would impact Samoa greatly, by way of air travel.
Measles was carried by an infected passenger who flew from Auckland to Upolu in August 2019, and by September, Samoa had their first case of community-spread measles. By November 15th there were over 4,000 cases, calling for the Samoan Government to declare a national state of emergency. The state of emergency ended just before New Year’s eve, but in the 43 days between, there were 83 measles related deaths. A majority of these deaths were children under 4 years of age. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi described the epidemic as a “cruel reality” for families and communities, and showed the importance of vaccinating against the disease.
One of the causes for such a high mortality rate amongst young children was fear of vaccination. Earlier in 2018, there was an incident involving two infants who passed away as a result of human error when two nurses had accidentally mixed the MMR vaccine with muscle relaxants instead of water. Although it was human error which resulted in the loss of two lives, this created a great amount of fear amongst Samoans, and led to a huge drop in vaccination rates from 74% to 31% of the population. The severely unprotected nation felt the repercussions of this in the following year. In a 2019 blog of Diplomatic Immunity, Dr Helen Petousis-Harris described Samoa’s vulnerability as similar to, “a lit match to dry tinder and gasoline.”
Although they were lacking in resources, relief efforts of Samoa in response to the measles outbreak were strong. There was an urgency for everyone to do their part to reduce case numbers, starting with free vaccinations for the population. Last year the Samoan Government released the National Measles Response and Recovery Appeal Report, stating “The impact of this national health emergency is far-reaching and tear at the very social fabric of society as every aspect of life is affected by this measles outbreak. It is imperative to strengthen the culture of acceptance of vaccination, in order to create ‘herd immunity’.”
Under orders of the state of emergency, the Government made vaccinations mandatory, starting with people under 19, pregnant women and the elderly. Families tied red fabric on the fences of their empty streets.This was a sign that they needed vaccinations, and nurses would administer them on site. Health professionals came from all over and volunteered their time, even pageant winner Miss Samoa Fonoifafo McFarland-Seumanu used her skills as a registered nurse to help. Youth were warned against leaving their houses, and mass gatherings such as church services and school were banned. A sense of community is crucial in Samoa, which made isolation a struggle. However, this was a huge success, and as a result an estimated 94% of eligible people were vaccinated.
Samoa was forced to adapt quickly with the measles epidemic that swept upon their shores last year. Beforehand, it was common to take to local healers for ailments and illnesses. But in lieu of empty churches, people needed faith in a health system that wasn’t as comfortable to them. Samoa has learnt a lot from this epidemic, and in current times, these are lessons that will be of grave use to them and the whole world.
Gabrielle is studying towards a BSci majoring in Actuarial Science at Victoria University of Wellington, and has an interest in anything revolving Māori and Pasifika communities and culture. This post was written as part of SCIS 311 – science communication.
Featured image: SS Talune in Port Chalmers c.1890s, public domain.