Bay Area joins race to stem measles outbreak in Samoa

A measles outbreak half a world away is generating a focused relief effort here in the Bay Area, and beyond.

Joseph Samatua has an eye for detail which he puts to good use at State of Grace tattoos. The same acumen is allowing him to help coordinate the effort to aid Samoa.

“Felt like it was kind of my duty to kind of help out the community, for those that are back home,” said Samatua.

Saturday, Samatua’s San Jose shop took in $8,600 in donations and supplies for that island nation. Samoa, which sites in the Western Pacific, has been hard hit by a measles epidemic. It is the most contagious virus and can lead to death if left unchecked, according to Santa Clara County health officials.

“The reason it’s so contagious is because it’s an airborne disease that’s spread through the air. So you could be breathing over here in one corner if you’re in a gym, and another person over there could breathe it in and get it, if you’re not immune,” said Dr. George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County.

The current outbreak started in mid-October, which led to a few fatalities. Back then the immunization rate was around 30 percent, and because of that, measles cases spiked, resulting in 70 deaths so far. 

“I was just there two weeks ago, and I seen it firsthand,” said Akiu Sale, a Samoan aid coordinator.

He traveled to his homeland for a ceremony elevating him to a tribal chief. But his accomplishment is overshadowed by the suffering he now tries to abate. A list of needed supplies is posted at drop sites in four western states including California. “Inkies Tattoo” shop is one of the places locally where goods and money can be donated. Sale’s wife, Christina, flew back to Samoa Sunday and is now working with relief agencies.

“There’s not much of a panic, but a more opening and acceptance of the vaccinations,” said Christina Sale. Added Doris Tulifau, another Samoan relief volunteer who is overseas, “We still have a lot of kids that are in critical condition, and those families, trying to make sure they feel everything they need is given to them.”

With the immunization rate now at 85 percent and climbing, this could mark a turning tide in the battle to stamp a growing public health threat.