Samoa begins two-day shutdown as authorities battle deadly measles outbreak

Samoa has begun a two-day shutdown as the government tries to curb a measles epidemic that has killed 62 people.

The government told most public and private workers to stay at home on Thursday and Friday, and shut down roads to non-essential vehicles as teams began going door to door to administer vaccines.

All schools have also been closed and children from public gatherings.

According to the government, more than 4,000 people have contracted the disease since the outbreak began and 172 people remain in hospitals, including 19 children in critical conditions.

Families in the Pacific island nation have been asked to hang red flags from their houses if they needed to be vaccinated.

People gather outside a health emergency operation centre Credit: TVNZ/AP

Most of those who have died from the virus are young, with 54 deaths among children aged four or younger.

The Samoa Observer newspaper said the normally bustling capital Apia was a ghost town on Thursday, with only birds nesting in the rooftops and stray dogs roaming the streets.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi told reporters the vaccine drive was unprecedented in the nation’s history.

Samoan authorities believe the virus was first spread by a traveller from New Zealand.

A national emergency was declared last month and authorities mandated that all 200,000 people get vaccinated.

The Prime Minister warned that relying on traditional healers - who have been successful in treating tropical diseases in Samoa for some 4,000 years - has allowed the disease to spread.

He said: "Some of our people pay a visit to traditional healers thinking that measles is a typical tropical disease, which it is not."

He also criticsed a "lackadaisical attitude" to measles warnings on the television and radio.

Figures from the World Health Organization and Unicef indicate that fewer than 30% of Samoan infants were immunised last year.

This 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.