Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Sixty people have died so far amid a measles outbreak on the Pacific island of Samoa, health officials said Wednesday, and urged unvaccinated families to hang red flags outside their homes to signify the fact they are not inoculated.
The Samoan government said the flags are meant to assist medical teams that are going house-to-house with vaccinations.
More than 4,000 people in the island nation of 200,000 have been infected so far, officials noted. Vaccinations are now mandatory and officials say 55 percent of the population has so far received the vaccine. To prevent spreading the disease, Samoa has closed schools and government buildings and barred large public gatherings until further notice.
Measles is highly contagious and symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose and watery eyes. It can be deadly, particularly in those with weak or compromised immune systems, and the vast majority of the deaths in Samoa have involved children under the age of five.
The United Nations children's fund, or UNICEF, has so far sent more than 110,000 vaccines to Samoa with help from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. New Zealand has also sent oxygen equipment, cooling equipment and other medical supplies.
"We're glad we can do something to help our Pacific neighbors," Rear Adm. Jim Gilmour said in a statement.
Fiji and Tonga, two other island nations in the South Pacific Ocean, have declared states of emergency due to measles outbreaks of their own, although the vaccine rate in those countries is at about 90 percent. The World Health Organization said Samoa's vaccination rate before the outbreak was about 31 percent.
"This is quite a severe disease and we just aren't used to seeing it, so it comes as quite a surprise when we see how fatal it can be," said WHO expert Jose Sagan, whose agency said misinformation from anti-vaccination groups has helped spread the disease.
The United States this year has seen its worst measles outbreak in more than a quarter-century -- and Britain, Greece, the Czech Republic and Albania all lost their "measles-free" status in August.