Five children in Johor test positive for diphtheria, raising concerns over parents who reject vaccinations

A child getting vaccinated in Malaysia. The Malaysian Health Ministry is mulling over a move to provide free vaccination for all children under five, including migrants and refugees, as the country reels from a spike in cases of parents rejecting vaccinations for their children. PHOTO: THE STAR ONLINE

JOHOR BARU - Five children in Johor have tested positive for diphtheria after coming into contact with the two-year-old toddler believed to have died from the disease last week, raising once again the spectre of 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 tested for the disease.

"They tested positive, including the deceased's four-year-old sister, who also did not receive immunisation for diphtheria," he was quoted as saying by The Star news site on Monday (Feb 25).

The infected children, he said, have been placed in an isolation ward and were receiving medical care.

According to the World Health Organisation, no vaccine is 100 per cent effective and not all those vaccinated develop immunity. But vaccinations significantly lower the risk of getting infected.

The rise in children contracting contagious diseases has been noted in Malaysia in the last few years, with health authorities worrying that there are parents who reject immunisation programmes for fear that the vaccines used infringe strict religious rules.

Though Islamic authorities have waived stringent halal requirements if suitable vaccines are not available, conservative Muslims sometimes reject the innoculations over concerns that some may have the DNA of pigs, which Muslims are forbidden to consume.

Dr Sahruddin told The Star that there were four diphtheria cases 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 immunisation 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.

"If the federal government wants to make immunisation vaccination compulsory or impose a fine for those refusing to comply, we will give our fullest support," he said, as quoted by The Star.

Symptoms of diphtheria include fever, sore throat and swollen tonsils.

The disease can lead to organ failure as well as blood and heart infections, resulting in death.

Meanwhile, Malaysia's Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said his ministry will be tabling a proposal to make immunisation compulsory.

He was reported as saying by Bernama on Sunday (Feb 24): "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 vaccination for toddlers nine months old and above is currently only at 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 dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) 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.

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