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Everybody knows someone affected

When a deadly measles outbreak hit Samoa, Red Cross volunteers were on the frontline supporting the community and helping stop the disease from spreading further.

Samoa Red Cross volunteers head out to support communities in the wake of a measles outbreak. Photo: IFRC/Ellie van Baaren

“Everybody knew somebody who had been impacted. But even more than that it was their country this was happening to, their people,” says Ellie van Baaren of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “It’s such a small country it affected everybody.”

The outbreak infected more than 5,700 people and killed 83, most of them children under five.

Samoa Red Cross was part of a coordinated response effort involving government agencies, the World Health Organisation, international medical teams and others. We at Australian Red Cross, along with New Zealand Red Cross, also sent aid workers to help.

With a state of emergency declared, Samoa Red Cross teams helped raise community awareness about the disease and encouraged people to get vaccinated. They also provided practical and emotional support, distributed hygiene kits and provided hygiene education – important to reduce the spread.

It's the most infectious disease on the face of the planet. It revs up fast and it spreads quickly.

Australian Red Cross’ Chris Evans, a nurse and public health aid worker

Vaccination is the closest thing to a silver bullet but it takes time to take effect.

“Once you could get your immunisation rates up high enough measles has got nowhere to go but it takes a couple of weeks for the vaccine to be effective,” says Chris, a communicable diseases epidemiologist who provided technical support to Samoa Red Cross.

The support Samoa Red Cross offered – from comforting people to helping them get to a hospital to showing them how to prevent infection – made a big difference, says Ellie.

Samoa is a close-knit community and volunteers would often be supporting people they knew. “They trust them in a way they may not trust some of the other people who would come in to share some of these messages.”

Samoa Red Cross volunteers let people know how to safe stay during a measles outbreak: Photo: IFRC/Ellie van Baaren

More than 65 volunteers helped during the height of the crisis, many of them working six days a week and sleeping at the Red Cross headquarters.

Ellie, who helped Samoa Red Cross bring attention to the crisis and response, says the volunteers were like a family.  “It was amazing to see how hard they were pushing themselves … Everyone I talked to was like ‘this is my service, these are my people, this is my country and I need to do something’.”

The psychological impact of this outbreak will last for some time, she says. “It’s a very socially connected country and everybody was feeling some kind of impact – and it has likely fed into some of the concern now around novel coronavirus.

That’s why Red Cross is so important because they don’t go anywhere. Samoa Red Cross teams will continue to work in their communities … that ongoing recovery [support] is what will help people going forward.

Ellie van Baaren of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

 

When health emergencies hit around the world Red Cross is often called on to provide psychosocial first aid, help with vaccination campaigns and to raise awareness about how to prevent, recognise and manage specific diseases.

Red Cross teams, who are often part of their local communities, also play an important role in tackling rumours and misinformation that can undermine efforts to contain a health crisis.

Right now, Red Cross teams around the world are doing just that with the COVID-19 outbreak – including giving people factual information, reducing stigma and reaching out to those who are affected.

Read more about our work across the Asia-Pacific and around the world