Samoan authorities have charged an alleged anti-vaxxer with incitement against the government, as the Pacific nation remains in a national shut-down over a deadly measles outbreak.
The arrest is the first of its kind in Samoa and came on day one of a government-ordered nationwide shutdown designed to allow a mass vaccination campaign across the island nation.
New Zealand news website Stuff reports the arrest came after a public complaint to Samoa’s attorney-general.
The man has been identified by local media as Edwin Tamasese – a local businessman with no medical training. He is accused of publicly stating “I’ll be here to mop up your mess. Enjoy your killing spree”.
Mr Tamasese has also reportedly previously said that Vitamin A or D can be used as alternatives to the measles vaccine.
He has been refused bail.
More than 4000 of Samoa’s population of about 200,000 has caught measles since the outbreak began in October. So far, 63 of those have died, including 52 children under four.
Last month, Samoa declared a state of emergency and made vaccinations compulsory – while also making it illegal to discourage people from getting immunised.
The national shutdown on Thursday and Friday is the latest step to try to halt the epidemic.
All businesses and most government offices have been closed, and curfews imposed. Anyone not immunised has been asked to hang red flags outside their homes to alert roving vaccination teams.
Ferries travelling between the islands have stopped running, and people are being told to keep their cars off the roads.
Latest update: 4,357 measles cases have been reported since the outbreak with 140 recorded in the last 24 hours. To date, 63 measles related deaths have been recorded.
VACCINATION UPDATE: Graphic uploaded below – as of 5 December 2019. pic.twitter.com/STS9VV4WkU
— Government of Samoa (@samoagovt) December 5, 2019
Despite the shutdown, Samoan authorities fear they won’t reach their target of immunising 90 per cent of the country’s residents.
Samoa previously had an immunisation rate as low as 30 per cent.
According to the ABC, the latest figures from the Samoan government suggest about 82 per cent of infants and children aged six months to four-years-old had been immunised as of December 5.
ABC foreign affairs reporter Melissa Clarke told AM on Friday morning that there was already talk among Samoan government officials about extending the shutdown or imposing another curfew next week to increase vaccination numbers.
She said mistrust of official vaccination programs became a “really big issue” in the Pacific nation when two children died after nurses administered them with incorrect measles immunisation drugs.
“We saw a lot of parents after that point, afraid and losing trust in the vaccination system,” she said.
“In those intervening months, we’ve seen a larger cohort of the population, particularly the children, grow up without getting the vaccines they need.”
On Thursday, the World Health Organisation said measles infected nearly 10 million people globally last year and killed 140,000, mostly children.
In figures described by its director general as “an outrage”, the WHO said most of the 2018 measles deaths were in unvaccinated children under five.
The highly contagious virus hit hardest in Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine, the WHO said. These nations accounted for nearly half of global cases.