Malaysia sees sharp rise in school clusters due to violations of Covid-19 rules

The main factor behind the surge in cases, particularly in boarding schools, was non-compliance with Covid-19 rules, said Malaysia health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah. PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR - The number of Covid-19 clusters in Malaysia's educational institutions has been rising sharply since schools reopened, as the authorities prepare to roll out vaccinations for children amid parental concerns.

Non-compliance with Covid-19 rules such as mask wearing and physical distancing was the main factor behind the surge in cases, particularly in boarding schools, said Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

Teachers with Covid-19 symptoms still turned up in class, increasing the rate of infection, he added.

Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said the Health Ministry detected 62 new clusters in educational institutions last week, up from 15 the week before. A number of schools in states such as Johor, Kedah and Melaka have been closed due to cases.

The authorities hope the situation may be mitigated after Malaysia rolls out the Covid-19 vaccine for children aged five to 11 from Feb 3, but some parents are worried about potential side effects.

Mr Khairy said last week that a ministry survey found that less than 60 per cent of parents agree to vaccinate their children.

His press conference, which was aired live on social media, drew many comments from parents who said they would not send their children for vaccination and asked when he would vaccinate his own.

Facebook user Siti Norhasmah wrote: "Show the live telecast to the whole of Malaysia of your children and grandchildren being vaccinated."

Another user, Anggun Leeyza, wrote: "I would rather take my child out of government school."

The College of Paediatrics Malaysia said on Jan 20 that it strongly supported the government's move to inoculate young children.

It said reports indicate that children infected with the Omicron variant have a 20 per cent higher risk of hospitalisation compared with those with the Delta variant.

It also noted that in the United States, paediatric Covid-19 admissions rose by 48 per cent in the final week of December 2021 alone. "Many of these children were unvaccinated or under-vaccinated," it said.

Young patients are at risk of developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a serious complication characterised by inflammation in multiple organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys.

They are also at risk of developing "long Covid", or sustained symptoms for up to 12 weeks or more which cannot be explained by any alternative diagnosis.

Universiti Putra Malaysia epidemiologist Malina Osman told The Straits Times: "I'm not only concerned about school clusters, but also the long Covid phenomenon which has been identified as being quite prominent among children."

Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, chairman of the Covid-19 Epidemiological Analysis and Strategies Task Force, told ST that adverse events from an mRNA vaccine are very rare, and thought to be related to the amount of mRNA as well as the dosing interval.

"The Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11 has a lower amount of mRNA (one-third) compared with the adult formulation, and the number of adverse events is very small. The benefits of vaccination thus outweigh the risks," said Datuk Awang.

"There is already evidence that being unvaccinated, children are now being infected in schools... it is best to protect our children directly with vaccination."

A student receiving a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at a secondary school in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in September last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

He shared that the findings of a recently published study on adolescents in France showed a reduction in the incidence of MIS-C as a result of vaccination.

Dr Malina added: "Clinically, the risk of complications from Covid-19 is much higher compared with (complications from) vaccines."

Malaysia will be rolling out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged five to 11 from Feb 3, with priority given to high-risk children with comorbidities.

To date, 97.9 per cent of adults have been vaccinated, as have 88.3 per cent of adolescents.

Writer Lynn Salleh, 43, sent her seven-year-old son to school last Thursday for the first time since last December, only to find out that there were two cases of Covid-19 detected in his school that day.

"Sending him to school is risky, but he doesn't do anything at home because I am busy with work. I am not sure if I should vaccinate him, but it looks like I may have to," she said.

Housewife Hani Mazlan, 40, has already registered her 10-year-old son for the vaccine. He is the youngest of her four children, and the only one in the family yet to get inoculated.

"I want my kids to attend face-to-face schooling, and enjoy the physical classes and sports day and extra-curricular activities, so the only way is to get them vaccinated," she told ST.

Malaysia reported 4,744 new cases on Wednesday (Jan 26).

Meanwhile, the country's borders look likely to reopen soon, with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob saying on Tuesday that the Health Ministry's views will be sought to "slightly relax" the current protocols.

Malaysia's borders have been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, except for the Vaccinated Travel Lane scheme with Singapore which began in November.

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