HONOLULU — Lt. Gov. Josh Green has assembled 76 people, including 50 nurses, doctors and other Hawaii health care workers, for an emergency medical mission to Samoa to help vaccinate residents amid a severe measles epidemic sweeping the nation.
The team is being sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, Fiji Airways, The Queen’s Medical Center, Hawaii Healthcare Emergency Management, Par Hawaii and AirMed International /Hawaii Life Flight, with medical supplies, flights, fuel and personnel to treat patients in Apia, Samoa, the island nation that reported 3,881 cases of measles and 55 related deaths, mostly children, as of Tuesday morning.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis. Five kids are dying a day. I don’t think anybody wants to stand by and let that continue to happen,” said Dr. James Ireland, who works with Hawaii Life Flight and AirMed, which has offered an air ambulance on Oahu that will be on call over the next two weeks if critical patients need to be transported to Hawaii. “These are children, so I think people have a strong sense of wanting to help, and I think there’s an urgency.”
The independent Samoan government, which is separate from the U.S. territory of American Samoa, will shut down for 48 hours in an effort to control the spread of the infectious disease through the mass immunization campaign by health officials and the Hawaii aid volunteers.
“In the future it is an infectious disease that will be of great concern for the nations of the world, probably much more than other threats that we constantly worry about, ” said Green, also a Big Island emergency room doctor. “It’s an infectious disease which can roll through a region or a nation in just hours or days, and so that’s why we’re stepping up.”
The multimillion-dollar effort will not use taxpayer money just donations and volunteers, including psychologists, OB-GYNs, cardiologists, pediatric specialists and emergency doctors, Green said, adding that he also will take some shifts in the emergency department, where a couple hundred patients are being seen by two doctors.
The group, including two Honolulu Star-Advertiser staffers, will fly directly to Apia at 2:30 a.m. today for 48 to 72 hours.
Pediatrician Nadine Tenn Salle said Samoan health officials are overwhelmed by the numbers of infectious patients inundating hospitals and emergency rooms.
“The crises is occurring in the hospital. Their ICU is beyond overflow. The pediatric intensive care unit that is accustomed to taking maybe two to four patients tops is on towards 18 to 20,” she said. “They’re in need of supplies, they’re in need of basic equipment, they’re having to choose which child will be on the ventilator, which children will get vaccinations, which will get the support that’s needed when you are unfortunate enough to get the complications of measles, such as encephalitis and pneumonia. This is a tragedy. It’s preventable.”
Hawaii health officials are warning travelers about measles outbreaks across the Pacific and other areas around the globe. So far this year there have been four reported cases in Hawaii. The Health Department is urging residents to make sure they are vaccinated against the highly contagious disease, which is easily spread through the air by coughing and sneezing.
The Hawaii volunteers plan to immunize up to 50,000 Samoan residents over the next few days.
“We are at the crisis point,” Salle said. “The more we can do right now with immunizing and getting medical care out there means that we should be able to bring this to some sort of lull in the next one and a half to three months, and that’s our hope.”
HOW TO HELP The Healthcare Association of Hawaii is collecting donations for the medical mission. Call 521-8961 for more information.