By Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Volunteers in the New Zealand city of Rotorua are preparing two dozen white-lined coffins to be transported to Samoa at the end of the week as the measles-ravaged Pacific island nation languishes under a growing death toll that has now hit 70.
The smallest of the coffins, designed for the bodies of babies, are decorated with felt butterflies, daisies, stars and hearts. Volunteers have placed a teddy bear in each of the infant-sized caskets.
"It's not easy. No-one is prepared to lose that many children," said Tagaloa Tusani, a New Zealand-based volunteer who is organising the coffin transport.
"No funeral home is prepared for that."
The highly infectious disease has attacked Samoa's most vulnerable, with 61 out of the 70 casualties aged four and under, the government said on Monday.
After causing devastation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine, among others, measles cases started appearing en masse earlier this year in the New Zealand city of Auckland, a hub for travel to and from small Pacific islands.
The virus then took hold in Samoa which had the lowest vaccination rates in the region.
There are now almost 4,700 reported cases of measles in Samoa's island population of only 200,000.
The World Health Organization (WHO) last week described the global epidemic as "an outrage" given most deaths have been in children under five years old who had not been vaccinated.
"The fact that any child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles is frankly an outrage and a collective failure to protect the world's most vulnerable children," said the WHO's director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus.
Supported by foreign governments and international aid agencies, Samoa has been conducting a vaccination drive that the government said has now covered nearly 90% of eligible people.
There are currently 16 critically ill children in intensive care in Samoa, and two pregnant women are also in hospital.
International groups have been sending medical supplies to Samoa, and providing doctors and nurses, to help combat the disease.
The volunteers in Rotorua, located south-east of Auckland, usually make coffins for New Zealand families who can't afford them.
Volunteer coffin-maker Ron Wattam said he never imagined they'd be catering for an epidemic of this magnitude.
"The caskets are white, and white-lined inside, all made up to very suitable undertaker standards," said Wattam.
"It's the least we can do."
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)