By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Samoa declared a state of emergency this weekend, media reported, closing all schools and cracking down on public gatherings, after several deaths linked to a measles outbreak that has spread across the Pacific islands.
The island state of just 200,000, located south of the equator and half way between Hawaii and New Zealand, declared a measles epidemic late in October after the first deaths were reported.
Since then, at least six deaths, five of them of infants under the age of two, have been linked to the outbreak, according to The Samoa Observer newspaper. Of the 716 suspected cases of measles, 40% required hospitalisation.
"The way it is going now and the poor (immunisation) coverage, we are anticipating the worst to come," Radio New Zealand cited Samoa's Director General of Health Leausa Take Naseri as saying late last week.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said on Friday his country would send 3,000 vaccines and 12 nurses to Samoa to assist with the outbreak.
"Measles is highly contagious, and the outbreak has taken lives in Samoa," Peters said in a statement. "It is in everybody's interests that we work together to stop its spread."
Measles cases are rising globally, including in wealthy nations such as the United States and Germany, where some parents shun immunisation mostly for philosophical or religious reasons, or concerns, debunked by medical science, that such vaccines could cause autism.
Media in Australia and Samoa have reported that Samoa's government made a vaccination a mandatory for all people with a vaccination programme scheduled to be published on Monday.
In Tonga, about 900km from Samoa, the ministry of health last week said an outbreak of measles in the country occurred following the return of a squad of Tongan rugby players from New Zealand.
Since then, 251 cases of confirmed or suspected measles have been identified, the ministry said in the statement.
American Samoa, a U.S. territory neigbouring Samoa, declared a public health emergency on Thursday following the measles outbreak in Samoa and Tonga, according to New Zealand media.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes)