Samoa measles crisis not 'act of god', preventable - National MP Agnes Loheni

The AM Show 12/12/2019

Measles isn't an act of god, but a condition that can be prevented with vaccinations and "good primary healthcare".

That's the message from National MP Agnes Loheni, who visited Samoa in the midst of its measles crisis, which has seen more than 70 people - mostly children under the age of four - succumb to the disease.

Loheni went to the small Pacific country last Thursday on the first day of its two-day Government lockdown. The closure period saw inter-island travel blocked, shops and public services stop operating, and a ban on driving.

The first-term National MP, who is the party's associate spokesperson for Pacific peoples, said there was a gloomy mood when she arrived. Locals were forced to stay home to ensure authorities could get to as many people as possible to vaccinate them.

"I arrived to a somber environment. [There] was a sense of being quite surreal that this could be happening in 2019, the level of measles-related deaths at this time," Loheni told The AM Show.

There are very distressed parents quite worried about their children.

"There are children who have survived, of course... but [there is] concern around, from many parents, the time it is taking their children to get better. Some of the symptoms of measles is actually pneumonia."

Loheni said measles was different to other disasters the country has faced as it wasn't a natural disaster, but something preventable.

"Samoa is a very resilient country. It is a country that sits in the path of quite destructive cyclones and I have lived their where it has happened. There has been loss of life during those events as well," she said.

"The difference here is that measles is not an act of god, it is something that is preventable."

She said there were a few important things Samoan residents and authorities would be focused on.

"It is looking at good primary healthcare for families, it is about education around the importance of vaccination."

It's believed the disease reached the Pacific nation after someone visited from Auckland, where more than 1500 cases have been confirmed this year.

In response to the crisis, Kiwi nurses travelled to the island to help out. A package announced by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters included 100,000 vaccines as well as specialists and Samoan-speaking doctors and nurses.

Loheni said there was a lot of gratitude from the Samoan people towards New Zealand and other countries.

"There was a sense of gratitude from the people of Samoa to New Zealand and to the other countries and volunteers who had just came along and supported. 

"The number of support also from Samoan communities, New Zealand, Australia and around the world was overwhelming. There was just a sense that people wanted to do something."

Samoan authorities say they've now vaccinated around 91 percent of the population, and the number of new cases is dropping. 

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Jamie Ensor