KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia kicked off its Covid-19 vaccination drive for children aged five to 11 on Thursday (Feb 3) amid rising concerns over school clusters.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, however, said schools would be kept open as much as possible, as the majority of infections were asymptomatic or mild, and none fell into the severe or critical categories.
"There are 190 active education clusters right now, and the number of cases which are Category 4 or 5 is zero. This means that vaccination works. Schools can stay open, school closure is the last option," Mr Khairy told a news conference after launching the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme for Children. Category 4 patients need oxygen to breathe and Category 5 ones require ventilators.
"If we feel that we need to close the school, it will be temporary. We want to keep schools open as much as possible. This is very important," he said, adding that only 14 schools had to be closed so far due to Covid-19.
The highest number of clusters involved boarding schools, with a total of 108.
Mr Khairy acknowledged that some parents were concerned about adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccine.
He said vaccination is not mandatory, but he has registered his youngest son, aged six, for the jab. His two other children, who are teens, are already vaccinated.
"We also looked at the situation in Singapore, they have a similar racial composition to Malaysia, and we found that there were no serious side effects," said Mr Khairy.
Malaysia is administering the paediatric dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to children as a two-dose regime with an eight-week interval.
It is targeting 70 per cent of school-going children, aged between seven and 11, to receive their first dose within the next two months, and for 50 per cent of the overall 3.6 million children from the age of five to receive their first dose by the end of February.
To date, over 517,000 children aged five to 11 years old have registered for the inoculation.
Malaysia recorded 26 Covid-19 deaths involving children between the ages of five and 11 in the past six months, out of 147,282 children infected.
This week alone, 3,557 children tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry is hoping to relax more Covid-19 curbs, including border controls and travel requirements.
Mr Khairy said: "I want to see more people getting their booster jabs. We have hit 55 per cent for adults, but we seem to have hit a wall as there are many who are reluctant. We want to open borders and ease up on restrictions, but I need cooperation, so those who are eligible for boosters but have not taken them, please do so."
The authorities are predicting a surge in Covid-19 cases due to the Omicron variant but Mr Khairy said the majority of cases are expected to be mild.
The Health Ministry reported 5,720 new infections on Thursday.
A total of 97.9 per cent of the adult population and 88.6 per cent of adolescents aged between 12 and 17 have received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.