Paradise Lost? Leading Israeli Doctors Save Lives in Measles-Stricken Samoa
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Paradise Lost? Leading Israeli Doctors Save Lives in Measles-Stricken Samoa

Responding to an urgent call for assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO) and a request from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sheba Medical Center dispatched a team from its Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response center to the South Pacific island of Samoa last week to combat a massive, deadly outbreak of measles.

Upon landing in the Samoan capital of Apia, the team, immediately rushed to Tupua Tamaese Meaole Hospital where they joined the local caregivers and international teams and began treating victims. The Israeli team has since been working around the clock to contain the disease, which has already claimed the lives of 71 people, many of them children and pregnant women.

Heartbreaking scenes of parents in mourning could be seen all over the island. “It’s going to take a long time to heal,” Lina Chang, a community advocate who is helping the families, told reporters.

Sheba’s medical team to Samoa is being led by experts in their field: Dr. Itai Pessach, head of Sheba’s Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital; and Assaf Luttinger, RN, deputy director of Sheba’s Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response center.

“In this particular mission, we did not need to deploy our field hospital or bring measles vaccinations to Samoa, but rather, to bring hands and heads to the affected areas,” said Prof. Elhanan Bar-On, the Director of the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response. “The Samoan healthcare system has been dealing with the situation admirably, but after two months of working at their limits, they really needed help and the Israeli team joined a coalition of medical teams from around the world in an effort to help the local teams and save lives.

Dr. Pessach told the Samoa Observer (sobserver.ws) newspaper, “What is happening here should be a wake-up call, a global wake-up call for the importance of global immunization. All of us are responsible to one another.”

Since the outbreak in late October, almost 5,000 cases of measles were reported.

At the time of the outbreak, the vaccination rate in Samoa was only 31% due to fears that spread last year in the wake of the deaths of two infants. Local nurses had mistakenly administered vaccines that had been mixed with another medicine. Within weeks of the outbreak, that percentage rose to 91% of those eligible. However, to effectively prevent measles from spreading, 93% to 95% of a population must be immune.

To reach that goal, the Samoan government has now mounted an aggressive vaccination campaign, making immunization mandatory and cracking down on “anti-vaxxers.” Authorities have arrested one man whom they allege had publicly disputed the vaccine drive.

Until the disease is contained, Samoa will continue to be in a state of emergency. Meanwhile, the nearby US territory of American Samoa has also declared a state of emergency, after nine people contracted the disease.

Just prior to takeoff at Ben-Gurion Airport, Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, Dir. Gen. of Sheba Medical Center, told the team, “Our goal is to help the people of Samoa and represent the State of Israel. This is part of Sheba’s global impact, where we have a role to play in the world extending a hand to anyone in need. We are privileged to extend assistance to the people of Samoa. I’m proud of all of you, as you embark on this important mission.”

Sheba’s Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response was established in 2017 by highly experienced specialists to provide an effective response to mass casualty events, natural disasters and humanitarian crises. Sheba’s team works independently and/or in collaboration with local medical teams to provide care in the acute phase of the disaster as well as continued quality care during the rehabilitation phase.