Outrage over diphtheria deaths in Malaysia

Childhood vaccination against diphtheria is required under Singapore law, but it is not compulsory in Malaysia.
Childhood vaccination against diphtheria is required under Singapore law, but it is not compulsory in Malaysia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Parents had rejected vaccine, fearing 'pig DNA'; the authorities seek to quash rumours

KUALA LUMPUR • Two children have died in Malaysia from diphtheria this month, apparently because their parents did not vaccinate them against the infectious disease, believing the jabs contained elements of pig DNA.

The deaths have triggered outrage, prompting the Health Ministry, medical experts and a state mufti to plead with parents not to believe in rumours.

Malaysian media reports say an "anti-vaccine movement" reportedly based in Kedah has spread doubts about the contents of the vaccine and about its necessity.

The reports say the group claims the injections are part of a plot by enemies of Islam to weaken Muslims.

Diphtheria is a highly contagious bacterial disease that can cause fatal heart and nerve damage, but childhood immunisation is not compulsory in Malaysia. In Singapore, immunisations against diphtheria and measles are compulsory by law.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, in an unusual intervention on a health issue, wrote on his blog on Thursday that people should not listen to rumours. He said he felt sad after reading about the deaths, as the national immunisation programme started 50 years ago had been successful in stopping infectious diseases.

  • What is diphtheria?

  • Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial disease that causes inflammation of the mucous membranes, potentially hindering breathing and swallowing. It could cause fatal heart and nerve damage.

    Childhood immunisation is not compulsory in Malaysia.

    In Singapore, the childhood immunisation programme offers vaccination against nine infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and mumps.

    Only diphtheria and measles immunisations are compulsory by law, the Ministry of Health said on its website.

"All these efforts will be a waste if there are among us those who spread rumours that raise doubts about vaccine inoculations and immunisation," he wrote. "The worst part is when these false reports are spread using the name of Islam by Muslims themselves."

A seven-year-old girl from Malacca died last Saturday after contracting the disease eight days earlier, the New Straits Times (NST) daily reported yesterday.

She infected two siblings, aged nine and 10, who are recovering in hospital now after receiving diphtheria anti-toxin and antibiotics.

In the second case, NST reported that a two-year-old boy in Kedah died after contracting diphtheria. The toddler and three of his siblings had not been immunised against the disease. The boy's 10-month-old sibling is in critical condition.

Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin, the highest Islamic religious authority in the northern state, said it was sinful for Muslims to refuse to take measures that prevent them from harm, such as vaccinating against a known dangerous disease such as diphtheria.

"It is okay if those who are against vaccination could prove, based on facts, that the vaccine is indeed dangerous. However, what happened recently proved otherwise," he told NST.

Terengganu's state director for health, Dr Mohammad Omar, said there were perceptions that the vaccines were "not halal", so some people refused the vaccinations. "This should not be happening. The Fatwa Council declared that immunisation is a must and that vaccines are halal," he told The Star newspaper.

The Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia said the vaccinations are a proven method for preventing infection and recognised by millions of Muslim doctors worldwide.

"The loss of lives resulting from a disease that can be prevented with vaccination should be regretted," its president, Dr Abdul Rahim Mohamad, said in a statement on Wednesday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Outrage over diphtheria deaths in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe