The distant nation of Samoa may have more to offer the United States than prominent athletes and warm Pacific Islander culture. Its deadly experiences with a raging outbreak of an infectious disease underscore a timely and important message: Vaccinations matter and we should all get them.
A confluence of unfortunate events has led to a measles epidemic in Samoa, news organizations reported, with more than 40 deaths and 3,000 illnesses among the nation’s 200,000 people. Schools and colleges have been shut due to the illness.
International health organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are flying in medical experts to assist with the dangerous and growing epidemic, which has hit children on the island hard.
The outbreak, which likely spread from nearby New Zealand and began in October, has worsened steadily due to the low vaccination rates in Samoa, where unfounded anti-inoculation sentiment has been spread by a medical error and individuals promoting counter factual views.
Samoans’ suspicions about vaccinations may have grown due to an incident a year or so ago in which two nurses wrongly mixed a measles shot with an anesthetic before giving shots to two infants. The children died. The nurses have been convicted of manslaughter in the widely publicized case, which experts said undercut public confidence in their health services. Coverage of the incident may have proved problematic for health officials because it did not clarify early and often enough that the measles vaccine did not cause the infants death — the nurses’ lethal and wrong mixture did.
That vaccination discomfort also has been fed by vaccination foes, who include the wife of a prominent Samoan athlete. They recently got a boost for the unscientific and unproven views with a visit from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy and a public figure whose vaccination opposition has been denounced by his own family.
He has insisted that his Samoan trip was solely to help the nation celebrate its independence. But during the official travel he urged officials to reconsider their use of the measles vaccine and he was photographed with a leading Samoan anti-vaccination figure, whom Kennedy asserted he had met by chance at a resort.
Health officials globally — including in the United States — have found themselves battling resurgent outbreaks of measles, including in New Zealand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Brazil, and the Philippines.
Vaccinations, as with all medical interventions, carry risks. But these are far outweighed by their benefits, especially if high percentages of individuals in a given population get immunized and share “herd immunity.”
But debunked misinformation has spread in viral fashion about inoculations, leading the United States — which had neared elimination of the illness — to see its worst outbreak of measles in decades. The New York Times reported this summary of the problem:
“[More than] 1,200 measles cases were confirmed in 31 states in 2019 as of early November, with a majority of the new cases appearing in New York. The outbreak constitutes the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992, according to the CDC. More than 120 people have been hospitalized from measles this year, with a majority of those who contracted the virus not vaccinated.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the potential benefits that they can experience by staying healthy and out of the U.S. health care system. It is fraught with medical error, hospital deaths and infections, and misdiagnoses.
Vaccinations can be a vital way for young people and adults, including seniors, to avoid debilitating and risky infectious diseases. If you aren’t up to date on your shots, you should talk with your doctor and get the beneficial inoculations as soon as possible. This includes the seasonal flu shot.
Vaccines take time to boost individuals’ immunity. But it still will be worth considering getting those shots, urgently, especially as so many of us will be traveling and socializing, meeting friends and families who may be carrying and spreading infections unintentionally. Adults may, for example, want to ensure they are vaccinated against whooping cough, so as to not cause illness and maybe more serious consequences for babies and tots. Those older kids returning from college — and socializing like crazy during their holiday break — might benefit from vaccinations against meningitis and mumps.