Fiji's viral epidemics
The Covid-19 pandemic is now demonstrating the meaning of "going viral" around the globe and has certainly overtaken the global media. But I suspect that news of a measles outbreak in the South Pacific last November may not have reached many of you.
Fiji's recent measles epidemic
Measles infections have risen around the world in the last two years. But younger doctors and nurses in Fiji, where vaccination rates are good, had never seen a case of measles until a few months ago. When measles took hold in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and other South Pacific islands including New Zealand, Fiji health authorities acted decisively. Sports matches and all large gatherings were banned, both in-bound and out-bound travellers were required to be vaccinated and villages where measles patients lived were urged to quarantine themselves.
Two months later nearly half the population had been vaccinated by nurses visiting house-to-house, the infection rate was declining and some of the bans lifted. The number of measles cases in Fiji totalled 28, all in the Central Division. There have been no deaths. So far, Fiji's response has been a textbook success in disease control.
Samoa presents a tragic contrast. More than 5,600 caught measles, and more than 80 patients have died, mostly babies below the standard vaccination age of 12 months. I don't know the reasons, but I know the impact of this grief on Samoa, with a much smaller population than Fiji, must be enormous.
Fiji remembers 1875
The worst disaster Fiji has ever experienced was the 1875 measles outbreak. To celebrate the Deed of Cession of the Fiji islands to Queen Victoria in 1874, Ratu Cakobau, recognised as Paramount Chief by the British, sailed to Sydney to pay a state visit to the governor of the colony of New South Wales. While there, Ratu Cakobau and several of his retinue caught measles. They were nursed carefully and recovered quickly. Returning on the Dido a few weeks later, no one realised that others in the chief's party were infectious. Many of his relatives visited the Dido to welcome Cakobau, who then sent out his heralds throughout the islands to explain the Deed of Cession to his often hostile counterpart chiefs.
Within six months 40,000 people, a third of the population, had died in torment. Naturally, many suspected the disease was deliberately unleashed by the British, while others believed God was punishing them for giving up their lands. The chiefly class suffered higher mortality than commoners - indeed entire aristocratic families were wiped out. If you've read Death by Tradition: Fiji Islands Mysteries 2, you may remember this happened in Tanoa, my fictional highlands village. Such a sudden loss of so many experienced leaders, revered as almost divine, threatened the traditional social order. Governor Gordon feared that Fijians might never recover, but recover they eventually did. I wonder if the memory of 1875, which all Fijian children learn about at school, is partly responsible for Fiji's swift and whole-hearted response to the measles outbreak just a few months ago.
The difference between the 2019 measles outbreak and the new virus sweeping the world is that as yet there is no vaccine for Covid-19. Let's hope scientists develop one soon! So far, no cases of Covid-19 have been identified in Fiji and I hope and pray this does not change. Nevertheless, I believe the experience of measles epidemics in both the distant and recent past will strengthen the capacity of Fiji and other Pacific island nations to repel this new invader.
I look forward to hearing from you!