PMA - Who We Are

 In August 2019, a passenger who had contracted measles in New Zealand boarded a flight to Samoa. By early January 2020, Samoa’s Ministry of Health reported it had spread to more than 5700 measles cases, resulting in 83 deaths from a Samoan population of 200,874. Medical specialists attributed the cause to falling vaccination rates in Samoa due to the rising fear of the measles vaccine itself. For Debbie Sorensen, CEO of the Pasifika Medical Association (PMA), the epidemic is a heart-breaking tragedy that will remain with her forever, while reflecting with a sense of pride on the bravery of her colleagues amid the devastating trauma



Debbie Sorensen is no stranger to danger. Her first foray to responding when disaster strikes came in 2009 when the Pacific tsunami Galu Afi devastated the islands of Samoa, American Samoa and northern Tonga.


189 people were killed and entire villages wiped out. Over the decade that followed, the Pasifika Medical Association provided relief assistance across the region, including recovery work after devastating cyclones in Vanuatu and Fiji, an horrific car crash in the Bay of Plenty town of Katikati which killed five seasonal workers from Tonga and a bus crash in Gisborne which killed three people from Tonga’s Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College on the way to a concert at Gisborne’s Wesleyan Methodist Church.


The PMA team provided relief assistance at Christchurch Hospital following the 2011 earthquake and support to families affected by the Francie boat sinking at the Kaipara Harbour, which took the lives of eight people, the majority being Pacific, in 2016.


Confronting the Samoan measles epidemic, however, was at a scale unseen due to the loss of so many young lives. 83 people lost their lives from the epidemic and the vast majority of them were babies and little children under five years old says Debbie.


"It's a tragedy with a heartbreak that will live long in our memories."


The 2019 Samoa measles outbreak began in September 2019. By 6 January 2020 there were more than 5,700 cases of measles and 83 deaths out of Samoa's total population of 200,874. More than three percent of the population were infected, with the cause of the outbreak attributed to decreasing vaccination rates.


From a 74% vaccination rate in 2017, it was down to less than a third in 2018.


Fellow Pacific nations had vaccination rates in the 90s. A state of emergency was declared on 17 November, ordering the closure of all schools, keeping children under 17 away from public events. Vaccination was made mandatory.


On 2 December 2019, the Samoan Government imposed a curfew, cancelling all Christmas celebrations and public gatherings. All unvaccinated families were ordered to display a red flag or cloth in front of their homes to warn others and to aid mass vaccination efforts. Families added messages, such as writing “Help!” or “I want to live!”


On 5 and 6 December, the Samoan Government shut down everything to bring civil servants over to the vaccination campaign.


This curfew was lifted on 7 December when the government estimated that 90% of the population had been reached by the vaccination program.


To receive the recognition by the likes of the WHO (World Health Organisation) the Red Cross and New Zealand’s Ministry of Health for their deeds, Debbie Sorensen felt humbled. A positive sign and a significant outcome for Debbie and her team was the opportunity to work with locals while having the full support of New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).


“I’m thankful to MFAT for recognising that we have a level of capability that’s prepared to respond to our fellow brothers and sisters from the region,” she says.


“We add value. We bring our love and our care. More importantly, however, we bring our clinical expertise and competence to bear when our brothers and sisters call us.


“We witnessed that when we all lined up with 100 vans that left Apia in the very early morning to immunise 134,000 people.”


Her team acted over 14 days, over four rotations, with four deployments in Samoa, lasting from November 2019 to January 2020. Their Clinical Advisory Group consisted of five clinicians, a Primary Care team of doctors and nurses, and a mental health-psychosocial support team of psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, a counsellor, team co-ordinator and a logistician. An Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was established at PMA’s head office in Penrose, Auckland.


The total number of consultations was 16,410, of which 13,750 related to primary health, with 2660 in mental health.


There were 10,424 primary health patients. 1831 vaccinations were given, making a total number of 12,739 patients overall.


The total number of new cases of measles diagnosed through PACMAT was 190.


They provided 92 Teaching & Training sessions, 42 in Primary Health and 50 in Mental Health. Of the 76 personnel deployed, 84% were Samoan, with 88% able to speak their language fluently.


“There were many tears shed following what our PACMAT Samoa Measles Response team had achieved,” she said.


“Our partnerships with so many of the organisations and people doing amazing work is longstanding, spanning more than a quarter of century for many of those involved.


“When the Pacific calls, we will come, because this is who we are.”