WELLINGTON - Samoa ordered a government shutdown to help combat a devastating measles outbreak Monday, as five more children succumbed to the virus, lifting the death toll in the tiny Pacific nation to 53.
The government said almost 200 new measles cases had been recorded since Sunday, with the rate of infection showing no sign of slowing despite a compulsory mass vaccination program.
The scheme has so far focussed on children but Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said it was time to immunize everyone in the 200,000 population aged under 60.
To achieve the goal, he said government services and departments would close on Thursday and Friday this week in order to allow all public servants to assist with the mass vaccination campaign throughout the country.
He said only electricity and water utility workers would be exempt and called on the nation to stand together to contain the outbreak.
"In this time of crisis, and the cruel reality of the measles epidemic, let us reflect on how we can avoid recurrence in the future," Malielegaoi said in a national address.
Since the crisis began in mid-October, there have been 3,728 measles cases, accounting for almost two percent of the population.
Infants are the most vulnerable and form the bulk of infections, with 48 of the fatalities aged four or less.
A state of emergency was declared in mid-November, with schools closed and children banned from public gatherings, such as church services, to minimize the risk of contagion.
The outbreak has been exacerbated by Samoa's low immunization rates, which the World Health Organization blames on overseas-based anti-vaccine campaigners.
Malielegaoi was unequivocal in his message, telling his people "vaccination is the only cure... no traditional healers or kangen (alkaline) water preparations can cure measles".
"Let us work together to encourage and convince those that do not believe that vaccinations are the only answer to the epidemic," he said.
"Let us not be distracted by the promise of alternative cures."
Officials say the anti-vaccination message has resonated in Samoa because of a case last year when two babies died after receiving measles immunization shots.
It resulted in the temporary suspension of the country's immunization program and dented parents' trust in the vaccine, even though it later turned out the deaths were caused when other medicines were incorrectly administered.