World / Health

Anti-vaxers send vitamin A to Samoa

22:43 pm on 1 December 2019

Anti-vaccination groups are sending boxes of vitamins to Samoa, but critics are bristling at their influence as the government struggles to raise vaccination rates.

A poster at a medical centre warns against the spread of measles. Photo: RNZ / Rob Dixon

Today's updated death toll showed 48 measles related deaths in Samoa - most of them children under four years old.

More than 3500 cases of the infectious disease have been reported since the outbreak started in October, and a mass immunisation campaign is underway.

International anti-vaccination groups are sending the vitamins in a bid to help combat the disease. But there has been a mixed reaction to their efforts, as Samoan authorities struggle to combat low vaccination rates in the country.

The shipments are being received by a Samoan businessman, Edwin Tamasese, who opposes the use of paracetamol and antibiotics for measles patients.

He said the vitamins are working.

"We're having really good success, like in 16 hours we're having kids that are lying there looking like they're going to pass away, and they are weak, but then they get up and start drinking, and start to eat."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says Vitamin A deficiency is a recognised risk factor for severe measles, and in New Zealand doses are recommended for all children hospitalised with the disease.

The Ministry of Health website says the treatment can reduce the risk of fatality and eye complications.

But the WHO also recommends antibiotics to treat infections and pneumonia in measles patients, and says the antivaccination movement presents a serious risk to global health.

More than 200 boxes of the vitamins have been sent to Samoa so far, from countries like the United States.

Utah teacher Amy Morris is among those who have sent packages.

The mother of three hasn't vaccinated her own children for MMR and said Samoan children need the vitamins due to higher levels of malnutrition.

"For example here in the United States, if someone were to get the measles, they would usually be fine, because they have enough vitamin A and nutrition. But in places like Samoa or other countries, the infection can cause encephalitis, and possible seizures."

The vitamin shipments have been criticised on social media, with one commenter comparing anti-vaxers helping the measles crisis, to the US National Rifle Association sending band aids to families of mass shooting victims.

Before a mass vaccination campaign began a week ago, Samoa's health ministry said only two thirds of the population were immunised. But in the six month to four year old age group, which is particularly vulnerable to measles, less than 40 percent have been vaccinated.

Scientist Ian Mackay said the only way to prevent getting measles is to have the vaccine. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Debunking the myths

Scientist Ian Mackay, who specialises in virology at the University of Queensland, said anti-vax rhetoric about vitamin A peddled on social media is "not correct".

Some claim high doses of the vitamin are an alternative to getting vaccinated, but experts say the vitamin cannot prevent getting the measles infection and the recommendations are not based on evidence.

"The only way to prevent getting measles - the disease - is to have the vaccine, and have both doses of it," he said.

"It's a safe vaccine. And that's what works. That's the only thing that works.

"No other personal medications or vitamin concoction or magical oil will prevent that virus from spreading. It's only vaccination."

The World Health Organisation's Nikki Turner said online misinformation claiming children could be treated with vitamins had "no scientific evidence" behind them, and that such claims were "conning" people from getting correct treatment, the Samoa Observer reported last week.

Ian Musgrave, a pharmacologist and toxicologist at University of Adelaide, said discouraging people from getting vaccines was "unconscionable".

"That's incredibly dangerous. At the moment we have a severe outbreak," he said.

"Especially when the actual risks of the vaccine is so low and the consequences of not vaccinating can be lethal and can result in significant hospitalisation."