Measles in Samoa: Many still visiting traditional healers

From Checkpoint, 5:20 pm on 3 December 2019

As Samoa struggles to deal with the deadly measles epidemic, people are still flocking to a traditional healer in desperation.

The Prime Minister of Samoa has threatened police will jail people who discourage vaccinations and promise healing by alternative methods.

But there is a long history of natural healers in Samoa, and not all of them are making wild claims about cures.

Traditional healer Maria Amituanai told Checkpoint she was trained by her mother 40 years ago.

"The treatment is passed down through her grandparents," a customer who translated for Ms Amituanai said.

"A traditional healer doesn't really go to university ... it's usually passed down through generations.

At Ms Amituanai's property there have been many people with sick children, showing symptoms of measles, including rashes and watery eyes.

The traditional healer spreads a grainy paste over the children's bodies, derived from crushed plant leaves. She also spoons a liquid into the children's mouths.

She would not reveal what was in the mixture, as she did not want to give away her family's secret recipes.

Asenati Falute visited Ms Amituanai, hoping to get treatment for her one-year-old daughter Marion.

She said her three-year-old son Coxen got better after the traditional healing treatment.

"Swollen eyes, red swollen eyes and the mouth as well. And he had red spots all over his body. We brought him here and she massaged him first, and applied leaves on him. About a week and he was cured.

"So I'm hoping the same for this one."

But Ms Falute believes her children do not have measles. She said the traditional healer is not claiming the sickness the children have is not the measles disease. The symptoms however, appear the same.

While the government has established a nationwide ban on gatherings with children, dozens of people are in close proximity at Ms Amituanai's property, and none are wearing face masks.

Recently an alternative healer using Kangen Water was shut down by police. But Ms Amituanai told Checkpoint she was doing something very different.

"She is encouraging people to see the doctors as well, take medication the doctors are giving out," a customer said.

"She is not discouraging any health sector or doctors from what they're doing, she's just lending out her helping hand in a time of crisis."

Ms Amituanai said she was not deceiving people.

Debate over vaccination has raged in Samoa, ever since two children died on Savai'i last year after botched vaccinations. Two of the nurses responsible are in jail.

But Samoans have practised traditional healing methods for generations. It is a challenge for health authorities as they gear up for two days of an immunisation push.

The government is fighting against other competing messages online were influential people from overseas are claiming vaccinations are not safe.

One Australian-Samoan blogger has likened the compulsory vaccination programme to Nazi Germany, while influential former rugby player Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu has claimed the vaccines are dangerous.

The World Health Organisation has directly linked anti-vaccination messages to the spread of measles worldwide.

Canterbury doctor Scott Wilson works at a hospital near traditional healer Ms Amituanai.

"Alternative therapies – mainstream medicine doesn't have a particularly strong view on them as long as they're not to the detriment of patients' care. So as long as people aren't being taken advantage of financially or being given false beliefs," he said.

"I would stress to parents, if they're running high fevers, they have signs of pneumonia if there are signs of severe infections, they need antibiotics."

Ms Amituanai said she did not charge money for her treatment but said some customers who had the means, were making donations.

As of 2 December, 55 people have died in Samoa after contracting measles.