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Infant deaths in Samoa following administration of MMR vaccine under investigation

The deaths of two infants on 6 July 2018 in Samoa shortly after receiving their MMR immunisations are under investigation by the Samoan Ministry of Health and Samoan Police. 

There have also been media reports of two other deaths of Samoan siblings on separate occasions more than a week after MMR vaccination – these deaths occurred in 2017 and April 2018. A very rare genetic immune disorder is expected to have contributed to the death of the second sibling, who died in New Zealand. It is suspected that the first sibling had the same disorder. The family are undergoing genetic testing.

We would like to acknowledge the tragic losses experienced by the families of these infants, and concerns of the communities both in Samoa and in New Zealand.

The following will be updated as more information on the events on 6 July 2018 comes to hand.

MMR is a vaccine given after one year of age to protect against three diseases; measles, mumps and rubella.

  • MMR vaccines have been used for decades all over the world including New Zealand and there is a long track record of safety.
  • The vaccine used in New Zealand and Samoa is extremely safe.
  • There has never been a death associated with the administration of this vaccine in New Zealand.

Rarely a tragic event such as the one on 6 July in Samoa occurs. There are two main reasons why something like this might happen:

  • Medical error, where the vaccine is prepared for injection incorrectly and the wrong substance is injected.
  • Contamination of the vaccine due to leaving it at room temperature for a long period of time.

At the request of the Samoan Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization has mobilised an immunisation expert from the Western Pacific Regional Office to assist with the investigation and a forensic pathology team from Melbourne, Australia, to support the Government in the forensic work that will contribute to the evaluation of what caused these events. 

The MMR vaccine used in Samoa is a five-dose vial. The batch lot of the vaccine administered to these two children has been in use in Samoa since August 2017 with no safety concerns. The same batch lot is also in use in a number of South American and Caribbean countries, including Belize, Ecuador, St. Vincent, Trinidad Tobago, Chile, Aruba, Dutch Antilles, St. Kitts & Nevis and Cuba, with no reports of adverse events. 

Until the investigation is complete, it is premature to speculate on the cause of this tragedy.  

Click on the link to read the New Zealand Ministry of Health statement on the investigation into MMR vaccine safety in Samoa

August 9th, 2018

News reports have indicated that a nurse has been charged by Samoan police in relation to the deaths of the two infants on 6 July 2018. The nature of the charges will be made known at a hearing planned for the 14th of August. The coronial inquest for the two infants has been deferred until 12 September 2018 whilst authorities await the infant's full post-mortem reports. 

August 14th, 2018

The first court hearing of the nurse charged in relation to the deaths was held today. She was charged with manslaughter, negligence and perverting the course of justice after the children died after being given the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Visit the newshub story here.

August 15th, 2018

A second nurse in Samoa has been charged with manslaughter in relation to the deaths of the two children. Both nurses are due to appear in the Samoa Supreme Court on 27 August 2018.

August 24th, 2018

Report on RNZ website: Samoa's Prime Minister has called for nurses to be well trained, in light of last month's deaths of two babies after they received the MMR vaccine. Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi said the post mortem preliminary report did not find anything wrong with the vaccine but human error seemed to be involved in the diluting of the vaccine. 

September 14th, 2018

The Commission of Inquiry into the deaths of the infants commenced on 12th September. After hearing from the Samoan National Health Services, Ministry of Health and School of Nursing, the Commission highlighted the need for ongoing nurse training during their employment in the health sector. The Inquiry was adjourned on 14th September until after the Court proceedings against the two nurses charged with the manslaughter of the infants are concluded. The hearings are due to commence in February 2019.

Last updated: Sep 2018