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How Samoa has recorded NO Covid-19 cases with the help of a beauty queen

When Fono McFarland-Seumanu began her reign, her country was soon plunged into a deadly outbreak of measles which killed 83 Samoans

When Fono McFarland-Seumanu began her reign, her country was soon plunged into a deadly outbreak of measles which killed 83 Samoans

When the reigning Miss Samoa beauty queen was crowned in the Pacific paradise island, she might have expected a year of celebrations and glamour.

But when Fono McFarland-Seumanu began her reign, her country was soon plunged into a deadly outbreak of measles which killed 83 Samoans – mostly babies – and struck almost 6,000 people in a tiny population of 200,000.

Samoa was put into lockdown in order to carry out a mass immunisation programme. And as a specialist public health nurse, Fono volunteered to take part in the vaccinations.

The dark-haired beauty went from home to home to deliver the vital jabs, while emergency medical teams from all over the world – including the UK – helped staff in the overwhelmed hospitals.

And after the state of emergency ended, Fono – full name Fonoifafo – carried on that work to make sure all the children who needed vaccinating were covered in a catch-up campaign, going out twice a week to rural villages.

Now she’s fighting to keep residents safe from Covid-19, promoting staying at home and social distancing on her social media – and says the country’s measles outbreak helped the global response to coronavirus.

Samoa, home to around 200,000 people, is one of only a handful of nations to avoid having any confirmed coronavirus cases. It is in lockdown again to fight coronavirus, after enforcing the draconian measures for two days in December to carry out a mass-vaccination drive to protect thousands from measles.

Fono, 24, said: ‘I think the whole world has learned from this measles epidemic here in Samoa from what we’ve gone through. That’s evident in the way that everyone has responded to the coronavirus.’

The measles crisis shook up healthcare in Samoa and caused the government to take a hard look at its public health system.

The dark-haired beauty went from home to home to deliver the vital jabs, while emergency medical teams from all over the world – including the UK – helped staff in the overwhelmed hospitals (pictured holding a baby while they are vaccinated)

The dark-haired beauty went from home to home to deliver the vital jabs, while emergency medical teams from all over the world – including the UK – helped staff in the overwhelmed hospitals (pictured holding a baby while they are vaccinated)

Fono is pictured with the baby she held while they were vaccinated and the nurse, Koreti

Fono is pictured with the baby she held while they were vaccinated and the nurse, Koreti

HOW HAS SAMOA REACTED TO COVID-19? 

In January, Samoan health officials introduced a quarantine site at Faleolo hospital next to the country’s only international airport.

By mid-February anyone travelling via China or Hong Kong was not admitted into Samoa unless they had quarantined for two weeks at their last port of call. 

Some passengers were turned back on arrival. This list of countries was extended as the virus spread.

In March the country went into a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than five people and later all international travel. 

Take Naseri, the director general of health at the Ministry of Health, told MailOnline: ‘After an [measles] outbreak that killed 90 we are not taking the coronavirus threat lightly.’

Commentators says it was the vital jolt to strengthen the system which has led to some of the earliest stringent travel restrictions to prevent the virus entering the island.

In January they introduced a quarantine site at Faleolo hospital next to the country’s only international airport.

By mid-February anyone travelling via China or Hong Kong was not admitted into Samoa unless they had quarantined for two weeks at their last port of call. Some passengers were turned back on arrival. This list of countries was extended as the virus spread.

In March the country went into a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than five people and later all international travel.

Nicola Hawley assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, said Samoa’s almost ‘accidental preparedness’ after the measles outbreak came at huge cost to the nation.

Samoa, home to around 200,000 people, is one of only a handful of nations to avoid having any confirmed coronavirus cases. It is in lockdown again to fight coronavirus, after enforcing the draconian measures for two days in December to carry out a mass-vaccination drive to protect thousands from measles

Samoa, home to around 200,000 people, is one of only a handful of nations to avoid having any confirmed coronavirus cases. It is in lockdown again to fight coronavirus, after enforcing the draconian measures for two days in December to carry out a mass-vaccination drive to protect thousands from measles

Fono is now fighting to keep residents in Samoa safe from Covid-19 by promoting staying at home and social distancing messages on her social media

Fono is now fighting to keep residents in Samoa safe from Covid-19 by promoting staying at home and social distancing messages on her social media

Samoa was put into lockdown in order to carry out a mass immunisation programme in December. And as a specialist public health nurse, Fono volunteered to take part in the vaccinations. She is pictured outside a house with baby Jerome Elisapea

Samoa was put into lockdown in order to carry out a mass immunisation programme in December. And as a specialist public health nurse, Fono volunteered to take part in the vaccinations. She is pictured outside a house with baby Jerome Elisapea 








HOW MANY PEOPLE DIED IN SAMOA’S MEASLES OUTBREAK? 

Samoa – home to around 200,000 people – was rocked by an outbreak of measles last year, with the first cases occurring at the end of September.

The United Nations (UN) blamed anti-vaxxers for the crisis, which killed 83 Samoans – mostly babies – and struck almost 6,000 people.  

Only a third of the 200,000 residents on the island had received both their MMR jabs before the outbreak began to spiral out of control. 

Authorities on the Pacific island made the unprecedented decision to shut the nation down for two days back in December.

People were told to stay indoors amid the epidemic, with emergency workers going door-to-door to give all unvaccinated residents the MMR jab. 

Families were asked to hang red flags from their homes to signal they have not been vaccinated. Shops, schools and roads were all closed.

But she added: ‘Few nations have such recent experience with a crisis like this.

‘As they continue to recover from the heartache of the measles outbreak and face this new uncertainty, Samoa should know that in some circles their health leaders have almost as many fans as their national rugby team.’

Fono had already been speaking out about why kids should get the MMR jab to Samoans in radio interviews and social media after a measles outbreak in New Zealand in 2019, where she worked as a nurse.

She had been born and brought up there by her Samoan parents, her father Lemmy a pastor, her mother Nancy a mental health worker.

She said: ‘I was urging parents to get their children vaccinated because the numbers were going to continue to rise if we [didn’t] take action.’

Once she won the Miss Samoa title in September 2019 she moved to Samoa from New Zealand and went on to win Miss Pacific Islands in November in Papua New Guinea, the global regional title where Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands and others battle it out.

When she landed back in Samoa – when the government appealed for international medical teams to help – she learned that they were short of vaccinators.

Fono posted a cartoon mock-up of her wearing a face mask with the caption: 'Keep clean and stay safe'

Fono posted a cartoon mock-up of her wearing a face mask with the caption: ‘Keep clean and stay safe’

Fono told her Facebook followers: 'We must all remain at home and not engage in activities with friends and families that are not part of your isolation bubble'

Fono told her Facebook followers: ‘We must all remain at home and not engage in activities with friends and families that are not part of your isolation bubble’

HOW HAVE OTHER NATIONS IN OCEANIA FARED IN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC? 

NATION

AUSTRALIA

NEW ZEALAND

FRENCH POLYNESIA

FIJI

NEW CALEDONIA

PAPUA NEW GUINEA 

SOLOMON ISLANDS

VANUATU

GUAM 

CASES

7,118 

1,504

60                                   

18

18

8                                     

0                                       

0

0

NATION

AUSTRALIA

NEW ZEALAND

FRENCH POLYNESIA

FIJI

NEW CALEDONIA

PAPUA NEW GUINEA 

SOLOMON ISLANDS

VANUATU

GUAM 

DEATHS 

102

21

0                                    

0

0

0                                    

0                                    

0

0

She said: ‘We had a lot of people who were volunteering their time to help with the vaccination programs, but we didn’t have enough nurses to actually vaccinate. Luckily, I was certified to be able to vaccinate.’

She also redoubled her health messages, making videos and more posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When she went out doing house to house emergency vaccinations during the measles lockdown in December in Samoa, she caused a stir. 

Fono said: ‘Every single family that we’d stopped to was excited I guess, to see that the Miss Pacific Islands was at their doorstep.  

‘At the time, I didn’t think of myself as Miss Pacific Islands. I was solely just another team player that was there to help vaccinate.’

Sadly, she was approached by some of the families whose babies had died.

She said: ‘After people lost babies to measles, some of the families reached out and said, “This is what the Miss Samoa girl was talking about on the radio station”. And no one had really absorbed those messages at the time.’

In other ways, her winning Miss Pacific Islands cheered people up during a challenging time.

She said: ‘A lot of the families had actually thanked me for bringing back positive news to our country at the time we were looking for something to celebrate.’

Now Fono, based at a Samoan Government building in Apia, the capital, is helping spread the word about Covid-19 on Facebook and supporting national immunisation week.

Families in Samoa were asked to hang red flags from their homes to signal they had not been immunised as the nation shut down for two days in December for a mass-vaccination drive

Families in Samoa were asked to hang red flags from their homes to signal they had not been immunised as the nation shut down for two days in December for a mass-vaccination drive

The island's capital city of Apia was turned to a ghost town with roads, schools and shops closed (pictured, a red flag hangs outside a cafe)

The island’s capital city of Apia was turned to a ghost town with roads, schools and shops closed (pictured, a red flag hangs outside a cafe)

And she has asked locals to perform the Samoan traditional dance Siva on TikTok as a challenge to give them something to do, with the hashtag #passthesiva.

She said: ‘It’s a crazy and unprecedented time right now globally with the latest COVID-19 pandemic. It’s heart breaking to hear the rising death toll contributed to this virus.

‘But it’s reassuring to know that countries throughout the world are taking action to minimise the spread of this virus by implementing a lockdown or period of isolation.’

She is a passionate advocate of public health. Fono added: ‘With public health you’re working on the prevention side of things. I’ve never really been a fan of a working in hospital because I feel like the people are coming to you when they’re at the end stages.

‘Why would you wait until they get there, when you could be feeding them with the information they need that would stop them from getting there in the beginning?’

She said she sees how positive messages about vaccination can work, when she arrives to give a scheduled vaccination to one child. ‘When we turn up to the house, the mom is bringing out five other children behind them.

‘That slows our program down a bit, but it’s good to see that they’re now receiving the messages and that parents more comfortable asking questions and just supportive of the whole vaccination programmes.’

And she says she is so glad that she has a platform to get her messages across.

She said: ‘This is my opportunity to really make noise around what’s important.’  

This report was supported by a journalism grant from the European Journalism Centre https://ejc.net/

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