Samoa went into shutdown today as the death toll from the measles epidemic climbed to 62 and a two-day door to door vaccination campaign got underway.
Samoa is essentially shut down for Thursday and Friday, to allow vaccination teams to reach those who have not yet been immunised.
One team told Checkpoint they administered 60 injections in the first 2.5 hours on Thursday.
The nation’s capital Apia would normally be bustling with cars, shoppers and people at work. But on Thursday it was a ghost town.
The government has ordered that all road travel is banned on Thursday and Friday, unless authorised by the government.
People have been ordered to stay in their homes as more than a 100 vaccination teams travel the country.
They have been told to hang a red cloth or flag outside their house to signal that someone is not immunised.
Despite a vaccination drive going on for weeks, there are red flags hanging at many properties outside Apia.
“I [woke up] at 6am and put my red flag on that tree so we can tell the people to come and vaccinate us. I think it’s only me, my wife and older son. The rest of them, they’re already [vaccinated],” said Faleata local Vai Esera.
RNZ Checkpoint reporters Alex Perrottet and Logan Church travelled with a vaccination team on Thursday.
People appeared to be obeying the shut-down law, but police had set up checkpoints to ensure only drivers with clearance were on the roads.
Those found to be flouting the rules were given warnings and had their license plate numbers taken.
Gaga’eolo Afaese Farane lives next to one of the police checkpoints. He tied a red tee shirt to a pole outside his property.
“I’ve only been out here since 6:45am, I’ve seen a lot of vans go past, but I’m sure they’ll come around,” he said.
“It’s a very sad occasion for everybody. This is probably my first experience of a national catastrophe or disaster… I know they had the tsunami about ten years ago but that’s nothing compared to this.
“Having kids myself, it’s very sad to see these kids being taken away from us so young.”
All data from the mobile vaccination teams is being sent back to a large tent set up outside the government buildings in Apia.
Large screens keep track of progress. By midday on Thursday the number of vaccines administered was at 2,000 and was rising by the hundreds.
Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi praised the vaccination effort and said his government was doing all it can.
But some have criticised it for not acting sooner.
The Samoan government suspended all measles vaccinations after two children died on Savai’i in July 2018, when two nurses mixed a vaccine with anaesthetic.
It took eight months for the programme to get back up and running, despite the World Health Organisation advising that immunisations should start again as soon as possible.
But Tuilaepa denies claims his government did not act fast enough when this outbreak began.
“The measles that we got came from a visitor from New Zealand. We did not leave it too late. What we have decided to do is inject all the children first.”
He said it was disappointing some people had not heeded the government’s message to get their young ones vaccinated as soon as possible.
He also said one of the big challenges was convincing people that traditional healing techniques are not going to prevent or cure measles.
The government had put out stern warnings to healers who were proposing alternative treatments to measles.
One of those was Fritz Ali’asa, who got in repeated trouble after being shut down several times but kept reopening.
He was using the debunked Kangen Water as an alternative measles treatment.
On Thursday police visited his property to see if any illegal activity was taking place, but it was quiet.
But the Prime Minister said some people are still opting to visit traditional healers rather than a hospital.
“Some of our people still visit traditional healers thinking it’s a typical tropical disease, which it is not.
“On top of that we also have those who… saw the opportunity to make a buck.”
With the death toll rising each day it is difficult to know when the epidemic will be over. /radionz