He Whakaaro Tragedy strikes Samoa

Dec 22, 2019

Nā Ward Kamo

A sombre centenary is being marked in Samoa presently as the small Pacific country grapples with the enormity of the measles epidemic sweeping its shores. It’s just over 100 years since the island trader steamship Talune docked in Apia, with six seriously ill passengers who came ashore, bringing with them influenza. Within a week the flu had spread through Upolu and over to Savai’i, and consequently 8,500 Samoan people died – around one-fifth of the population.

In July 2018, two infants died after measles vaccinations, due to an incorrectly-mixed vaccine which had expired muscle relaxant instead of water added. The incident caused a sharp decrease in measles vaccinations.

The rate of vaccinations, particularly for measles (covered in the MMR – measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine), is also beginning to decline in the Western world. The rise of Google medical degrees (about two hours of “doing one’s own research” is all it takes to graduate) saw an increasing number of middle class people choosing not to vaccinate their children because of wrongly-attributed health issues.

In early 2019 New Zealand saw a measles outbreak that resulted in two deaths of in utero babies and thousands of New Zealanders infected – predominantly in South Auckland.

And just last month, probably as a result of an infected New Zealander flying into Samoa, measles broke out there. At the time of writing, 62 Samoan people, overwhelmingly children under 4, have died; and some 3,800 cases have been recorded. Health officials say the peak has yet to be reached. For a country of just 194,000 people, this is a devastating outcome.

The parallels between the flu and measles outbreaks just 100 years apart could not be more closely drawn.

How has this happened?

Last year’s botched vaccine in Samoa saw vaccination rates plummet to below 40 per cent of all children under four. While Tonga and the Cook Islands were able to maintain a vaccination rate of more than 90 per cent for all children, Samoa could not achieve the same – and now a terrible price is being paid.

This crisis hasn’t been helped by the rise of quackery with a new breed of fofō, or traditional Samoan healers, emerging. Neither versed in traditional Samoan healing practices, nor in any way versed in traditional western medicine, these “fofō” have actively discouraged vaccinations in Samoa. Instead, they have been promoting alternative approaches such as vitamin A and C concoctions, and constructing mistruths about “vaccine generated measles”’ being more lethal than “wild measles”. They push alkalised water and promote natural “cures” such as ground-up black rice.

They have sought to capitalise and make money from the misery of their compatriots. The same has been happening with Māori – and it’s not the first time.

In 1907, the Tohunga Suppression Act was passed (soon followed by the Quackery Prevention Act 1908, aimed squarely at Pākehā faith healers). Contrary to popular misperception, the Tohunga Suppression Act was actively promoted and supported by Māori. James Carroll (“Timi Kara”) introduced the legislation into the house of parliament. Tā Māui Pōmare and Tā Te Rangihīroa, both medical doctors as well as staunch proponents of tikanga Māori, championed the bill. And Hōne Heke Ngāpua, Northern Māori member and regarded by some as a tohunga himself, also supported the legislation.

There are many factors that led to what would ultimately prove to be an ineffective piece of legislation. In 1904, Tā Māui Pōmare had published a public health statement that began the push for the legislation. Prior to his report, a number of deaths had been occurring in Māori villages as a consequence of tohunga interventions. Indeed, in one pā some 17 children had died as a result of tohunga ministrations. One family lost four members to the treatment of a professed tohunga in 1893.

Tā Māui Pōmare was determined to stamp out charlatans who claimed supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of disease, yet had none of the training of the tohunga of old. And this is borne out by Tā James Carroll seeking to regulate rather than outright ban them.

Te Rangihīroa wrote with great reverence about the role traditional tohunga had played in Māori society. He was less sanguine about tohunga in his time, stating:

“The so-called tohunga of the present day is a fraud and a quack. He has brought the once-honoured name of ‘tohunga’ into disgrace.”

The genuine traditional fofō are the time-honoured custodians and practitioners of village-based healthcare in Samoa. They are an integral part of the culture, and their healthcare deals with a multitude of ma’i Samoa – mate Māori as we call it.

My five children have all been to fofō to have their Samoan health issues dealt with, and in each case, according to the translation of my wife, the fofō have urged we also seek Western healthcare for our children. The system of fofō shares a wonderful symbiotic relationship with Western medicine – something the Māori supporters of the Tohunga Suppression Act had envisaged for Māori traditional healing knowledge back at the turn of the last century.

Modern day quackery comes with appeals to reject western medicine and replace it with whatever snake oil the charlatan is promoting. And these “cures” are always accompanied by rather high prices – the price more than anything else, is the rub. Because as Samoa is proving, the price isn’t just paid from the back pocket. It’s the ultimate price of life and death; and in this case, innocent children.

The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 was an endeavour by Māori to prevent other Māori profiting from the misery of their communities throughout Aotearoa. Today in Samoa we are seeing similar attempts to shut down “alternative” health practitioners – the charlatans, not the traditional fofō.

The Government of Samoa has declared a state of emergency that:

• makes vaccinations compulsory
• limits and in some cases bans public gatherings
• closed all educational facilities
• limited to one the number of whānau able to be at the bedside of sick people in the hospitals.

In recent days a crackdown has begun on people professing cures for the measles epidemic. I can’t cheer this enough.

At the end of the day, the oranga of our communities must be front and centre of how we deal with health. Mate Māori are best dealt with by rongoā experts and tohunga. And mate tinana (cancer, measles, diabetes, etc) are best dealt with by tohunga with the letters “MD” attached to their names.