KUALA LUMPUR - There are growing calls for Malaysia to vaccinate children as the country continues to record surging infections and deaths from Covid-19, ahead of the expected reopening of schools in September.
The government has flip-flopped over vaccinations for children 12 to 17 years old, while an online petition is asking for the age group to be immunised. As at Thursday morning (Aug 12), 592 people have signed the petition.
Mr Yun Siang Long, 52, a managing partner in a marketing consultancy, started the petition two weeks ago.
"I am concerned because the government wants to reopen schools in September," the father of three told The Straits Times.
"I think the data is there (but) there doesn't seem to be a plan to vaccinate the teens. Yet they want to reopen the economy. Let parents make the decision."
Coordinating Minister for Immunisation Khairy Jamaluddin had said in June that exam-year students would be prioritised for the vaccination. He said they would receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine starting in July, with schools being used as vaccination centres.
Since then, however, the health authorities have said they need more data, even as schools are preparing to reopen in September and IGCSE examinations - the equivalent of Singapore's O levels - are scheduled to take place in October and November.
PM Muhyiddin Yassin said on Thursday that teenagers aged 16 and 17 will be vaccinated, but only after all eligible adults have received their vaccinations.
Schools were shut in early May after Covid-19 was found to have spread among students in several schools.
"Children over the age of 12 should be vaccinated," Universiti Putra Malaysia epidemiologist Malina Osman told The Straits Times. "In my opinion, the benefits of the vaccine for this group outweigh its risks," she said.
Negeri Sembilan Menteri Besar Aminuddin Harun said on Thursday that students must be given the vaccination before they return to school, following the emergence of more virulent variants such as the Delta and Lambda strains.
"I am all for the reopening of schools on Sept 1, but the students must be given vaccinations first. I am sure this can be done because I have been told that only those in Form 5 and Form 6 and who will be sitting for exams will be returning for face-to-face lessons first," he was quoted as saying by The Star daily.
Meanwhile, Sarawak may not wait for federal government approval, after 31 per cent of 836 cases in the state recorded on Tuesday involved children aged under 18.
"As Sarawak has been vaccinated far ahead of the country, and about 29 per cent of our population is younger than 18, we should not wait for the national Covid-19 immunisation programme's policy and have asked Scovag (Sarawak Covid-19 Vaccination Advisory Group) to evaluate this group for vaccination," state Disaster Management Committee adviser and cardiologist Sim Kui Hian wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.
Opposition Democratic Action Party MP Kelvin Yii, who is also a medical doctor, said the government should reverse its decision to withhold the immunisation of children, as he also believes that the benefits outweigh the risks.
"This is especially true in view of the emerging variants of concern that are more transmissible being reported across the world, including the Delta, Lambda and Delta Plus variants," he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Data has shown that children can still get infected and adolescents, in particular, can still spread the virus, Dr Yii added.
Last month, Mr Khairy said the government would not vaccinate children pending further studies, despite the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency having approved the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine for 12- to 17-year-olds.
Mr Khairy told Parliament this was in line with a previous decision by the British government to postpone vaccinations for this group based on reported side effects of myocarditis, or heart inflammation, in up to 40 cases per one million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine given to males 12 to 29 years old in the United States.
But Dr Yii pointed out that the risk of boys 12 to 17 years old developing myocarditis and pericarditis - inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart - from Covid-19 is estimated at 876 per one million. That is 13 times more than the risk from mRNA vaccines, at 67 per one million.
For girls 12 to 17 years old, the risk of developing these conditions from Covid-19 is 213 per one million. That is about 24 times more than the risk of getting them from mRNA vaccines, at nine per one million.
As at June 29, 116,378 children have contracted the coronavirus in Malaysia.
On Thursday, Malaysia reported 21,668 new infections, the highest daily tally so far during the pandemic. Another 318 deaths were reported.
Housewife Lily Chew, 53, told ST that she wants her two 17-year-old children to be vaccinated.
"This is an important exam year for them. So many countries have safely vaccinated 12 to 17 year olds," she said. "The vaccine is not compulsory for adults, so just let parents decide for their own kids as well."