Israeli team who treated measles patients in Samoa: Get vaccinated

The trip to Samoa was "difficult and complicated," Dr. Itai M. Pessach of Sheba Medical Center.

Israeli medical professionals helping measles patients in Samoa. (photo credit: COURTESY - SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER)
Israeli medical professionals helping measles patients in Samoa.
Days after a team of nine doctors and nurses from Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer returned from the beautiful, treasured island of Samoa, they are calling on Israel to “wake up” and ensure that its population understands that vaccinations are one of the most important determinants of population health.
“People have to realize that when they decide not to vaccinate their child, they are endangering not just their child, but the whole community,” said Prof. Elhanan Bar-On, director of the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response at Sheba. “One child infects another 10 who each infect another 10 – that is how an epidemic starts.”
Vaccinations are tied to life expectancy, infant mortality, general death rates, disability and quality of life.
Bar-On founded the Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response in 2017. Since then he – together with dozens of other Sheba medical professionals – have sent help to victims of a volcano eruption in Guatemala, a cyclone in Mozambique and a cholera outbreak in Zambia, among many other efforts.
The team of six nurses, two pediatricians and one physiotherapist that traveled to Samoa were there to assist with emergency treatment of patients with measles. Close to 5,000 Samoans were diagnosed with the disease, and as of December 10, 70 people – mainly children under the age of five – have died from it.
Bar-On explained that the first cases of measles were identified in October, and that by November, the Samoan authorities had announced a state of emergency. The Israeli team flew out December 7 at the request of the Foreign Ministry, which was working in collaboration with the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
It takes two days to fly from Israel to Samoa and the island, according to Dr. Itai M. Pessach, with its turquoise sea and white beaches just as stunning as one would imagine. However, the scenery was the backdrop for a raging measles outbreak that left thousands of children with respiratory and other lung infections and suffering from severe dehydration.
The number of new patients, however, is on the decline.
“The trip was difficult and complicated,” Pessach recalled in an internal communication that was disseminated around Sheba after the team landed back in the country on December 22. “We lost many children. Even experienced medical professionals like us, people who work in a large medical center and deal with multiple and complex cases, were not prepared to lose four children a night.”
He said that for their first few days serving in the main hospital in the country’s capital of Apia, “we felt powerless against the magnitude of the disaster.”
Israel’s medical team worked closely with professionals from around the world, including England, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
There are only about 200,000 people living in Samoa. Bar-On explained that 5,000 Samoans infected with the virus is the equivalent of 200,000 ill Israelis . And 70 deaths are like 3,000 Israelis dying in the course of a few months.
Bar-On said the Samoans did “an amazing job” handling the situation, including inoculating about 90% of the non-immunized population as soon as the disease started to surface. Before then, only about 31% of the population had been vaccinated. He said that a couple of years ago, there was a mishap due to a medical error and two children died following receiving a vaccination, which strengthened the anti-vaccination movement and led residents to opt out of this standard of care.
Measles is one of the most – if not the most – contagious disease, Bar-On explained. He said that, “if you are infected by measles and you are in a closed room with people and you cough or sneeze, some six to 12 people will also become infected. It spreads fast.”
In Israel, most of the adult population is vaccinated. If you had the disease as a child, you are vaccinated for life. If not, you receive a shot as an infant and that is meant to protect you, though it starts to decline after about 10 years. A booster shot revives its effectiveness.
“Samoa is fortunate to have friends like Israel,” Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said during a call with the Prime Minister’s Office as the Sheba team was arriving home.
He said the doctors and nurses underwent a full emotional debriefing upon return.
Bar-On told the Post that he is leaving on Sunday for the Dominican Republic, where he and two other Sheba doctors will continue early-stage dialogue about setting up a program for medical collaboration, including possibly establishing a burn unit in the Caribbean country’s new hospital.
“When they are ready to go,” Bar-On said, “we will be ready to go, too.”