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Emergency Health Unit fight against the Samoan measles outbreak

I arrived in Samoa shortly after a two-day mass measles vaccination campaign. The government had vaccinated nearly 40,000 people in an effort to stem the spread of a deadly outbreak.

As I descended the stairs from the plane, my thoughts were of how Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit would be joining teams from all over the world, working alongside Samoan doctors and nurses to help some of the sickest and most vulnerable children and their families.

On the drive from the airport I spotted some Christmas decorations adorning someone’s house.

My first impulse was happiness as it made me think of the festive preparations I had seen as I left my home in the UK. Then I thought of the Samoan families who would spend their Christmas mourning the loved ones they had lost to measles.

It was the sound of her breathing

Samoa’s main hospital in the capital, Apia, has expanded to absorb the overwhelming number of measles patients. Old wards have been re-opened and tents have sprung up in the hospital grounds.

At the start of my second day on the ward I walked into the measles treatment area and saw a doctor bent over a child.

I heard the child’s breathing before I could fully see her. But I knew she was in trouble and alarm bells were going off in my head. She needed urgent treatment. We gave her antibiotics and oxygen, but she continued to deteriorate.

The child’s father was standing by her side. He was distressed, never taking his eyes off his little girl.

We called in the intensive care doctors. They decided she needed to go on a ventilator and gave her a general anaesthetic.

There was a risk she would go into cardiac arrest during the procedure. But as a team we all worked together to stabilise her and she was safely transferred to the intensive care unit.

Emergency Health Unit staff deployed to the Samoan measles outbreak

Measles – a devastating disease

Measles is one of the most infectious diseases in the world. If you’re not vaccinated, you can catch measles when an infected person coughs or sneezes near you.

It can affect people of all ages – but measles is particularly dangerous for babies, young children and pregnant women.

In severe cases, measles in children can lead to chest problems or pneumonia making it difficult for them to breathe. Then there’s fever, which can lead to convulsions. And mouth ulcers and diarrhoea, which can lead to dehydration. It can also leave children with some long-term complications such as hearing impairments and blindness.

More than 5,000 Samoans have contracted measles during this outbreak. Of those who have died, most have been very young children. 

Vaccinations save lives

Immunisation rates in some countries are far below the level needed to protect children and this has led to devastating outbreaks across the world.

Often, outbreaks are due to challenges delivering vaccines or accessing the most at-risk populations. In other countries, some communities have unfortunately become more hesitant to vaccinate their children despite the evidence showing it’s a life-saving intervention.

The Government of Samoa reached more than 90 percent of the target population through their measles mass vaccination campaign – and we’re already seeing the positive results.

We’re now receiving fewer measles cases in the hospital and there’s a shared hope amongst health workers that we’re starting to win the fight against this deadly disease.

By Kelly Alliston, Paediatric Nurse with Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit in Samoa

Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit deployed to Samoa in early December at the request of the World Health Organisation. Our highly experienced clinical staff are working in the main hospital in Apia supporting Samoan Ministry of Health staff who have been fighting this outbreak tirelessly for months.

Specifically, our midwives and obstetrician are delivering babies and providing care for women, new mothers and babies. They have helped deliver care for mothers with measles, all of whom have recovered well and gone on to have healthy pregnancies. Our family doctor is working in a small district hospital where he is seeing up to 30 children and their families a day. Our paediatric nurse is treating children with measles and advising on infection prevention and control measures in the hospital.

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