JOHOR BARU • Five children in Johor have tested positive for diphtheria after coming into contact with a two-year-old toddler who was believed to have died from the disease last week, turning the spotlight once again on parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.
Johor Health, Environment and Agriculture Committee chairman Sahruddin Jamal said the children, aged four and below, were among 52 people who tested positive for the disease.
"They (include)... the deceased's four-year-old sister, who also did not receive immunisation for diphtheria," he was quoted as saying by The Star news website yesterday.
The infected children, he said, have been placed in an isolation ward and are receiving medical care.
According to the World Health Organisation, no vaccine is 100 per cent effective and not all who are vaccinated develop immunity. But vaccinations significantly lower the risk of infection.
Malaysia has seen a rise in the number of children falling victim to contagious diseases in the last few years, and the health authorities worry that there are parents who reject immunisation programmes for fear that the vaccines used infringe strict religious rules. Though the Islamic authorities have waived the stringent halal requirement if suitable vaccines are not available, conservative Muslims sometimes reject innoculations over concerns that some vaccines may have the DNA of pigs, which Muslims are forbidden to consume.
Dr Sahruddin told The Star that four diphtheria cases had been reported in Johor since last October, including three children between 10 months and two years old.
"Two of them died and all three were not vaccinated," he said, adding that some 7 per cent of children in Johor did not receive vaccinations despite counselling.
The state government, said Dr Sahruddin, supported the Health Ministry's proposal to make vaccination compulsory.
"I am in full support of the proposal as there have been rare cases resurfacing in Johor such as diphtheria due to the refusal of certain parents to vaccinate their children".
Symptoms of diphtheria include fever, sore throat, a thick covering at the back of the throat and swollen tonsils.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad has said his ministry will table a proposal to make immunisation compulsory.
He was reported as saying by Bernama on Sunday: "I believe there will be arguments for and against the proposal, and the Ministry of Health will consider all views seriously."
Separately, Dr Dzulkefly's deputy, Dr Lee Boon Chye, said the vaccination rate for toddlers nine months old and above is only 89 per cent. He said the ministry is targeting a vaccination rate of 95 per cent for effective control of vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria and neonatal tetanus.
"The percentage of children getting their first doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines by their fifth birthday has reached our target but not for the vaccination given to children nine months old and above, which is now only at 89 per cent," he said on Sunday.