Samoa’s government said on Monday another five children had died from a measles outbreak, bringing the death toll from the epidemic to more than 50 as authorities race to vaccinate the country’s entire population.
Samoa declared a national emergency last month and mandated that all 200,000 people living on the South Pacific island nation get vaccinated. The government has closed all schools and banned children from public gatherings.
In all, 53 people have died in the outbreak since late October, including one adult and two older teenagers. Most of those who have died have been babies and young infants, including 23 children aged less than one, and 25 children aged between one and four.
The government said more than 1,100 people had been admitted to hospital since the outbreak began. Some 180 people remain in hospital, including 19 children who are in a critical condition.
Samoan authorities believe the virus was first spread by a traveller from New Zealand.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday her country was doing all it could to help curb the epidemic, including sending more than 50 medical professionals and thousands of vaccines to Samoa.
Other countries including Britain have also sent teams and supplies.
Ms Ardern said the natural curve of infection rates meant that “sometimes things can be worse before they are better”.
Figures from the World Health Organisation and UNICEF indicate fewer than 30% of Samoan infants were immunised last year.
That low rate was exacerbated by a medical mishap that killed two babies who were administered a vaccine that had been incorrectly mixed, causing wider delays and distrust in the vaccination program.
The government said some 33,000 people were vaccinated before last month and since then, another 58,000 people had been vaccinated.
The World Health Organisation has set a target of wiping out measles from most of the world by next year. It says the disease is entirely preventable thanks to a safe vaccine that has been in use since the 1960s, and that measles deaths worldwide decreased by 84% between 2000 and 2016 to about 90,000 annually thanks to better immunisation.