This past weekend, on Saturday, 6 November 2019, the Government of Samoa declared a state of emergency. The driving force behind the declaration is measles, which has caused at least six deaths, mostly of infants who are less than two years old, according to an official statement from Samoa’s health ministry. Additionally, the health ministry claimed that there had been at least 716 suspected cases of the disease, 40 percent of which required hospitalization. Several unique characteristics make a measles outbreak in Samoa much more threatening than in a country like the United States. Samoa is an island state with a population of just over 200,000. Because of the small population pool, any potential risk that measles continues to spread is something the government has to view with extreme concern.
Samoa’s unique geographical position between New Zealand and Hawaii gives it a tropical climate, which likely amplifies the government’s concern; a 2011 study on measles links tropical climates to an increase in the rate of measles transmission after rainy seasons. The government’s anxiety surrounding measles was made evident in October of this year when it only took a few deaths for the Government of Samoa to declare measles an epidemic. Many see the new state of emergency as evidence that the government is continuing to take the issue seriously, and is willing to consider politically controversial steps to mitigate the worst impacts of an outbreak.
The underlying cause of the outbreak is the country’s lax vaccination requirements, as highlighted by the fact every child who has died so far due to measles wasn’t vaccinated. As a result, and as part of the new declaration of a state of emergency, the government has made vaccination mandatory for anyone who had yet to be vaccinated. However, this process of immunizing the public could take time. The primary challenge is that the government will likely have to administer tens of thousands of vaccines, as the Ministry of Health in Samoa reports that at least a third of people in Samoa aren’t vaccinated currently. Moreover, dealing with those who are already infected, and cracking down on public gatherings likely to increase the transmission of measles, which the government has already committed to doing, will likely stretch government resources thin. The outbreak in Samoa is having repercussions for its international neighbours. American Samoa, a U.S. territory nearby, has declared its own health emergency. The crisis also spurred New Zealand into action, and it offered to send 3,000 vaccines and 12 nurses to Samoa to help aid in the efforts to stop Measles from spreading, as reported by The Guardian.
Experience regarding measles in the U.S. parallels that of Samoa. Much like Samoa, the U.S. is suffering from an increase in measles cases which is also driven by under-vaccination. And, much like New Zealand, instead of sitting on its hands as it witnesses a phenomenon that mirrors the same tragedy it has going on domestically, the U.S. should step in. The U.S. could offer to aid in efforts by similarly sending nurses and vaccines. Sending one or the other alone isn’t enough, as a lack of nurses means they couldn’t administer vaccines sufficiently quickly, and a lack of vaccines would leave nothing for the nurses to administer. By doing so, the U.S. would be showing a political commitment to increasing vaccinations on a global scale.
This commitment could help build momentum and set a precedent for future international cooperation that centres on spreading vaccines to countries which desperately need them. Moreover, the U.S. can and should look towards Samoa as an example of how to react when a public health crisis breaks out. Samoa’s response was quick and decisive, whereas U.S. responses have been staggered, slow, and replete with loopholes that allow people to remain unvaccinated, endangering those around them.