KUALA LUMPUR: The government must plan the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine to ensure that as many people as possible get vaccinated instead of worrying about the narrative played up by the anti-vaccination movement.
However, medical experts cautioned that a sizeable number of people who had no issues with being inoculated with standard vaccines could be hesitant to roll up their sleeves for Covid-19 shots due to the uncertainties and concerns about their side effects.
Malaysian Public Health Physicians’ Association president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar said the situation was ripe for anti-vaxxers to escalate their campaign against vaccines, including the Covid-19 vaccine.
He said this was largely due to issues surrounding the pandemic, from conspiracy theories (or “plandemic”, as conspiracy theorists call it) to the economic effects, the technicality of vaccines and political instability.
To address this, he said, the government must be transparent on the safety aspects of the Covid-19 vaccine and embark on aggressive campaigning to create an informed society in the fight against the coronavirus.
“Inform the public regularly on the coverage, side effects and efficacy of the (Covid-19 vaccination) programme.
“People will want to know more information (about the vaccine) before they put it in their bodies,” he told the New Sunday Times.
He said the cost of the vaccination programme, as well as the resources and the time needed for the government to convince the public and counter anti-vaccination narratives, were other challenges that need to be tackled.
He urged the public to obtain information from credible sources in making the choice to get vaccinated.
“For anti-vaxxers, it is their choice and they should not try to confuse other people and end up in misery.”
He said the government should not highlight “herd immunity” in its discourse as there was no concrete evidence for it yet.
“The government’s goal must be focused on protecting the high-risk groups and frontliners, not to get herd immunity, because technically, we are not very sure of it yet. We only know the vaccine will protect vaccinated people.”
Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin had said the target was to help the country reach the herd immunity threshold.
Khairy had said if the herd immunity threshold was achieved, those who had not been vaccinated would be protected from Covid-19 infection.
Dr G. Jayakumar, a professor of community and occupational medicine at the Faculty of Medicine at Melaka Manipal Medical College, said public perception of vaccination could be split into three categories.
He said the first group include those who were convinced of the merits of vaccination; the second group include those who were undecided, while the third group included those who remained dogmatic anti-vaxxers and were unlikely to change their views due to religious grounds or wrong information.
“The speed at which the vaccines are being developed fuels scepticism among some people.
“The World Health Organisation has expressed alarm about persistent rumour mongers and conspiracy theorists with their attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalist content in the cyberworld who are harming potential Covid-19 vaccines.”
On the government’s plan not to make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory, he said Malaysia’s vaccination uptake rates were good compared with some developed countries despite a drop in recent years.
Jayakumar said making vaccination mandatory would be challenging and would raise many legal and ethical concerns.
He said the government’s target population for the vaccine would pose a problem, as it did not cover vulnerable groups like prison inmates, the homeless, migrants workers and illegal immigrant detainees.
“Communicable diseases are blind to race, geographical boundaries and nationalities. The huge population of migrant workers who often stay in poor housing facilities remain at high risk of creating Covid-19 clusters.”
He urged the government to buy vaccines from different companies.
“We should not place all our eggs in one basket as the virus and vaccines are new to us.”
He said it was important for the government and vaccine advocates to focus on efforts to quash anti-vaccine arguments.
“The message to the public is loud and clear. Vaccination is one of the greatest discoveries in the 20th century that brought about the drastic reduction in vaccine-preventable diseases and the eradication of diseases like smallpox.
“We need to create platforms for fact-checking initiatives for the public. These efforts could be enhanced by cooperating with professional bodies such as the Malaysian Medical Association to dispel rumours about vaccines.”
He said employers played a big role in assisting the government fight false information.
Alliance for Safe Community chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said the Health Ministry should provide constant and thorough information on the effectiveness and safety of Covid-19 vaccines to the public after some parties expressed concern about possible side effects.
“There are about 20 safe and effective viral vaccines available for use throughout the world that provide complete protection against at least 14 diseases.
“Of course, there will be cases where the vaccine may not be effective for some individuals, just as there are drugs and medicines that do not have the same benefits for all patients and may have side effects.”
While welcoming the government’s efforts to secure vaccines for the people, he said the government’s decision to prioritise some vulnerable groups should be made known to the public.
Lee said the public must not take things for granted even with the availability of vaccines and urged people to comply with standard operating procedures under the new normal.
It was reported on Friday that the government had signed agreements with pharmaceutical company Pfizer to obtain Covid-19 vaccines for 20 per cent of the population and another with vaccine development platform Covax Facility to immunise 10 per cent of Malaysians.
On Nov 9, Pfizer reported that its primary interim data showed a vaccine efficacy of 95 per cent.