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Samoa charges anti-vaxxer as deadly measles epidemic shuts down nation

Samoa attempts door-to-door fight against measles
WATCH: Samoa attempts door-to-door fight against measles

Samoa has charged an alleged anti-vaxxer for challenging a government-ordered vaccination drive meant to curb a measles epidemic that has killed dozens.

The official charge is “incitement against the government vaccination order,” according to the government of Samoa, stemming from a complaint made by a “concerned member of the public.”

“The allegation is that the individual publicly stated with reference to the current vaccination drive, ‘I’ll be here to mop up your mess. Enjoy your killing spree.'”

READ MORE: Samoa closes schools, restricts travel as measles death toll rises

At least 62 people have died and more than 4,200 people have been infected since the outbreak began in mid-October. A majority of the deaths have been babies and children.

The South Pacific nation endured a second day of a lockdown on Friday as aid workers fanned out to vaccinate as many people as possible. The government asked families who have not yet been vaccinated to hang a red cloth or flag in front of their homes as health officials went door to door to administer the vaccine.

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The two-day emergency vaccination drive was considered unprecedented in Samoa’s history.

In this image from a video, a red flags hangs outside homes of residents who have not been vaccinated in Apia, Samoa, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019.  (TVNZ via AP)
In this image from a video, a red flags hangs outside homes of residents who have not been vaccinated in Apia, Samoa, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019.  (TVNZ via AP)

But the battle to quell the devastating outbreak has been complicated by a vocal anti-vaccination movement.

“The anti-vaxxers, unfortunately, have been slowing us down. It’s a reason for the increasing number of deaths,” Communications Minister Afamasaga Rico Tupai said in a Facebook video. “A lot of people are keeping their children at home. When they see there’s nothing else, that’s when they rush to the hospital… Some die on the road. Some arrive and there’s nothing that can be done.”

The government has been fighting the spread of anti-vaccination conspiracies on social media, which Tupai said is attempting to “influence the population.”

New Zealand doctors help vaccinate patients in Samoa amid measles outbreak
New Zealand doctors help vaccinate patients in Samoa amid measles outbreak

Authorities attribute the scope of the epidemic to already-low immunization but believe the rate was exacerbated by a “vaccine-related incident” last year, where an incorrectly mixed vaccine was administered to two children, resulting in their deaths.

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The medical mishap fuelled distrust in the vaccination program.

“Misinformation about vaccines is a key cause for concern,” the government said.

“Inaccurate information and fear have been attributed as contributing to a low vaccination rate and late treatment for children under the age of five, which has resulted in fatalities.”

Possible consequences for not vaccinating for measles
Possible consequences for not vaccinating for measles

The alleged anti-vaxxer arrested had previously been warned by the police for similar actions, Samoan authorities said. He has been denied bail for “risk of reoffending” and remains in custody until a court date is available.

“We reiterate that while the goal is to keep the peace, we will advise police to act when we have no choice,” the government said.

Samoa officially declared a state of emergency on Nov. 14.

The highly contagious measles virus killed 140,000 people worldwide in 2018, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization recently classified the figures as “an outrage.”

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press