When a deadly measles outbreak hit Samoa, Red Cross volunteers were on the frontline supporting the community and helping stop the disease from spreading further.
“Everybody knew somebody who had been impacted. But even more than that it was their country this was happening to, their people,” says Ellie van Baaren of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “It’s such a small country it affected everybody.”
The outbreak infected more than 5,700 people and killed 83, most of them children under five.
Samoa Red Cross was part of a coordinated response effort involving government agencies, the World Health Organisation, international medical teams and others. We at Australian Red Cross, along with New Zealand Red Cross, also sent aid workers to help.
With a state of emergency declared, Samoa Red Cross teams helped raise community awareness about the disease and encouraged people to get vaccinated. They also provided practical and emotional support, distributed hygiene kits and provided hygiene education – important to reduce the spread.
More than 65 volunteers helped during the height of the crisis, many of them working six days a week and sleeping at the Red Cross headquarters.
Ellie, who helped Samoa Red Cross bring attention to the crisis and response, says the volunteers were like a family. “It was amazing to see how hard they were pushing themselves … Everyone I talked to was like ‘this is my service, these are my people, this is my country and I need to do something’.”
The psychological impact of this outbreak will last for some time, she says. “It’s a very socially connected country and everybody was feeling some kind of impact – and it has likely fed into some of the concern now around novel coronavirus.
When health emergencies hit around the world Red Cross is often called on to provide psychosocial first aid, help with vaccination campaigns and to raise awareness about how to prevent, recognise and manage specific diseases.
Red Cross teams, who are often part of their local communities, also play an important role in tackling rumours and misinformation that can undermine efforts to contain a health crisis.
Right now, Red Cross teams around the world are doing just that with the COVID-19 outbreak – including giving people factual information, reducing stigma and reaching out to those who are affected.