Samoa arrests vaccination critic amid deadly measles crisis

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Samoa is currently pushing a mass vaccination

Samoa has arrested an anti-vaccination campaigner as the country continues to battle a deadly measles outbreak.

Edwin Tamasese was charged with incitement against a government order after he was detained on Thursday.

The outbreak – which has killed at least 63 people, mostly young children, since October – is in part blamed on people spreading false information, claiming vaccinations are dangerous.

Samoa declared a state of emergency, and made vaccinations compulsory.

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Measles is a highly contagious illness that causes coughing, rashes and fever.

Although effective and safe vaccination is available, even some developed countries have seen a resurgence in recent years as unfounded fears about vaccine safety began to spread, often on social media.

Who was arrested?

Mr Tamasese had spoken out against vaccines on Facebook, instead promoting using ineffective remedies such as papaya leaf extract to treat the deadly illness.

Before his arrest, he had described the government’s mass vaccination programme as “the greatest crime against our people”, and falsely claimed vitamin C could cure the infected children.

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Authorities warn that children are particularly at risk from the disease

Samoa’s low vaccination rates are in part due to the deaths in 2018 of two children wrongly being attributed to vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella.

However, their deaths were due to nurses mixing the vaccine with a muscle relaxant instead of water, and not the vaccine itself.

The cases had nonetheless raised local fears, and were exploited by people seeking false proof that vaccines are harmful.

‘Don’t get in the way’

The current crisis in Samoa has also triggered many foreign anti-vaccination campaigners to weigh in and criticising the country’s drive to immunise its children, which is trying lift the level of measles vaccination coverage to more than 90%.

Samoa’s Communications Minister Afamasaga Rico Tupai said anti-vaccination activists – also known as “anti-vaxxers” – are spreading conspiracy theories which were hindering the unprecedented public health mobilisation.

“The anti-vaxxers unfortunately have been slowing us down,” he told TVNZ.

“We’ve had children who have passed away after coming to the hospital as a last resort and then we find out the anti-vaccine message has got to their families and that’s why they’ve kept these kids at home.”

He warned anti-vaccine campaigners: “Don’t get in the way, don’t contribute to the deaths.”

Media captionIt’s a numbers game… if some people are not vaccinated, it can cause a big problem for us all

His words were echoed by Unicef representative to the Pacific Dr Sheldon Yett, who told the BBC earlier this month that “people who are spreading lies and misinformation about vaccinations are killing children”.

“The best way to keep children safe is to make sure they’re immunised. Preventing vaccination and presenting false information kills children. That is clear – the evidence speaks for itself.”

Vaccination is not the only way Samoa is trying to end the outbreak. Earlier this week unvaccinated families were asked to hang a red flag outside their homes, while all schools have been closed and children under 17 are banned from public gatherings.