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American Samoa declares measles outbreak, closes schools

A red flags hangs outside homes of residents who have not been vaccinated in Apia, Samoa, last week. AP photo

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — The government of American Samoa declared that the U.S. territory has an outbreak of measles, a move that will lead to the closure of public schools starting Monday and a ban on gatherings in parks.

In its announcement Friday of the measles outbreak, the government says the territory has nine cases of the disease. Five of those infected had been traveling outside the territory.

As for the other four people who tested positive for measles, “we’re suspecting that is local transmission — meaning that it’s most likely, that some of these travelers did transmit the measles virus to them, causing them to be sick,” Health Department Epidemiologist Dr. Aifili John Tufa said.

Tufa said in a television broadcast that samples from those infected were sent to Hawaii for testing and the results came back Thursday, resulting in the move to let the public know that “we are currently in the state of emergency” and a “measles outbreak.”

In the neighboring independent nation of Samoa, more than 60 people have died, mostly children, from the measles and more than 4,000 were infected since the outbreak started in mid-October,, health officials said.

American Samoa will get a measles vaccine shipment from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection on Monday, Tufa said.

Data presented by health officials early this week during a cabinet meeting shows a 99.7 percent vaccination rate for mumps, measles and rubella in the territory, officials said.

But Tufa said that more needs to be done to up the rate for the 1-5 year age group which is currently at 84.7 percent “The number one way to stop the spread of measles is to immunize,” he said.

The developments in American Samoa came after dozens of Hawaii health care workers returned to their homes across the state after voluntarily providing measles vaccinations to thousands of residents of the independent nation of Samoa, officials said.

A team of 76 health care workers and support staff went to Samoa for a two-day medical mission to ensure residents in the independent nation of Samoa were immunized from the highly contagious virus, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports.

“You have scores of people dying, and the society is paralyzed,” said Honolulu surgeon Paulus Tsai. “Basically life has come to a standstill for the island.”

Samoa declared a state of emergency and complete shutdown of government and business operations while vaccination teams searched for residents susceptible to the disease, health officials said.

About 34,000 people were immunized over two days, officials said.

“Of all the efforts to save children around the world, immunization has the most dramatic impact. Everybody came together with their aloha to unite and support Samoa and attack this disease head-on in a way that will make a permanent difference in the lives of the people,” Straub Medical Center family physician Dale Glenn said.

The mission was coordinated by medical doctor and Lt. Gov. Josh Green who worked with Samoan leaders, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials said.

More than 500 people and groups responded ready to volunteer about 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, officials said.

“I hope the younger generation will realize health care can also touch other people’s live and can be a way for them to make things better for their society. It’s protecting their future generations,” Tsai said.

Since the outbreak started in mid-October, more than 60 people have died, mostly children, and more than 4,000 were infected, health officials said.