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World

Doctors Respond To Measles Outbreak In Samoa

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to the southern Pacific island nation of Samoa, where the government has shut down for two days to deal with a measles outbreak that has killed at least 60 people, most of them children. The government says more than 4,000 measle cases have been reported since late October - to put this into context, Samoa's population is less than 200,000 people. We reached Dr. Alan Wright. He's heading the New Zealand Medical Assistance Team, which arrived over the weekend and is working out of a hospital near the capital city, Apia.

ALAN WRIGHT: It's really busy. There's lots of people presenting with young children with very nasty measles, with complications. We're supposed to have eight beds. We generally have 20 people staying in the hospital at any one time. So we've created extra space. We actively have to manage acutely ill patients, you know, probably eight to 10 a day, before they become stabilized.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, Samoa has been under a state of emergency since November the 15, and all schools are closed indefinitely as the government works to immunize everyone who isn't. Unvaccinated families have even been asked to hang a red flag outside their homes to make it easier for medical teams to find them. But Wright says it's been hard to reach some of those people.

WRIGHT: The population is spread so widely around, you know, what is essentially a large rural population. And so it's really getting out to them, to get the vaccination program organized, which, of course, they're doing today and tomorrow, having shut the country down for a couple of days so that they can really pay attention to that in great detail.

MARTIN: The outbreak appears to be compounded by a low measles vaccination rate among Samoans; only 31% are vaccinated - that's according to the World Health Organization. That is down from a high of 90% in 2013. And immunizations plummeted last year after a high-profile scandal in which improperly prepared vaccines caused the deaths of two infants.

GREENE: Now, though life on the island has temporarily come to a halt, Wright is predicting that the worst is over.

WRIGHT: We are still seeing lots of presentations, but that's - you know, they're much healthier, the ones who are coming to us now. So they're either getting the message to come early or, you know, the vaccination campaign is starting to kick in, which I suspect it's a combination of both.

GREENE: Medical groups from Hawaii, also Australia, the U.K. have joined the team from New Zealand to fight this outbreak.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "PAPER SCISSORS STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.