In late 2019, a major measles outbreak hit Samoa. Lepaitai Hansell, a National Professional Officer with the World Health Organization, was a member of the WHO team supporting the response to the outbreak and stemming its impact on Samoan children.
“I supported the day-to-day work of the surveillance team, whilst my colleagues supported immunization, risk communication, coordination of the emergency medical teams, and mental health and psycho-social support”
More recently, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO Samoa has also been supporting risk communication, community engagement, clinical management and infection prevention and control. During this crisis, Lepaitai has continued to provide support to the countries while also focusing on the wider region, as she works in the information and planning pillar of the Pacific Joint Incident Management Team (JIMT).
“So far, the most challenging thing for me about these responses has been the mental health impact of having back-to-back emergencies”, Lepaitai explains.
“With limited staff and challenges with travel due to measures at the borders there was no time to recover and reflect on the measles outbreak before we were in the middle of COVID-19 preparedness and response activities”
For Lepaitai, the fact that the countries covered by WHO from Samoa: Samoa, American Samoa, Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau, have been able to stay COVID-19 free is a testament to the countries’ hard work and resilience in the face of the pandemic. “Looking to the Samoan people and to the response teams – both in the Ministry of Health and the Government at large – you can only imagine how tired they must be and how trying these times are for them”, she says. “These countries have managed so far to keep COVID-19 from their shores, particularly for Samoa, they have shown an ability to bounce back from the measles outbreak and keep going and at the same time keeping their islands free of the virus.”
When asked about the impact of her work, Lepaitai is modest. “I don’t think I have much impact as a single person. But working as part of a team and contributing towards meeting country needs makes all the difference in the world”, she says. “During the measles outbreak, everyone had a role to play, and no role was more important than the other. For example, we had the people who delivered food to the teams working in the clinical settings, or the teams that were working in shifts to enter data 24/7. Each of those people should feel proud of their contribution and be acknowledged.”
“Even our friends and families were central to the response – by being a constant source of support and encouragement they helped push us through some of the very trying times during the outbreak.”