'Embarrassed' Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon blasts 'appalling and distasteful' Samoan measles cartoon

New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner has labelled a cartoon about the Samoan measles crisis published in the Otago Daily Times (ODT) "extremely appalling and distasteful". 

The South Island newspaper apologised on Tuesday for the cartoon - drawn by Kiwi cartoonist Garrick Tremain - which shows two women exiting a travel agency with the caption: "I asked what are the least popular spots at the moment? She said the ones people are picking up in Samoa." 

The cartoon was heavily criticised online for making a joke out of the crisis, which has seen the deaths of more than 50 people. The vast majority of the deaths so far are those under four-years-old. 

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon has now weighed in, saying its publication showed "very poor judgement by the cartoonist and those involved in publishing it."

"To make fun of the fatal measles epidemic that has claimed the lives of many innocent children is a slap in the face to grieving families in Samoa, here and overseas. It is also disrespectful to New Zealand citizens of Samoan heritage."

Foon - a former Gisborne Mayor - said he was "embarrassed" the cartoon originated in New Zealand. 

"It is severely out of touch with the international community who are standing in solidarity by providing help with the medical effort in Samoa. 

"And while people all over the world express their sympathy and concern for the rising death toll, this cartoon only seems to be interested in a divisive and cheap laugh."

In a statement on the newspaper's website on Tuesday, ODT editor Barry Stewart conceded the content and timing of the cartoon was "insensitive" and promised a review of the newspaper's cartoon selection process.

"We have published many stories about the human suffering caused by the outbreak. They are stories not about a virus, they are stories of real people, real hurt, and real tragedy.

"This should have been our starting point when considering publishing the cartoon. That it was not was a deeply regrettable error in judgement."

Foon welcomed that review and offered his support to "any organisation who is genuinely interested in learning from this type of regrettable error".

"I offer my heartfelt condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones."

This is not the first time Tremain has gained attention for drawing a controversial cartoon. 

He responded to criticism in 2013, writing: "There have been other hostile reaction to cartoons over the years, most often from special interest groups, race relations conciliators and other martyrs to political correctness."