Misinformation, anxiety plague Malaysia's Covid-19 vaccination programme for teens

Malaysia started vaccinating its three million adolescents last month as it shifted its focus to broader vaccination coverage to transition to an endemic Covid-19 phase. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Misinformation and anxiety caused by several viral videos circulating online are hampering Malaysia's Covid-19 vaccination programme for adolescents, with the deputy health minister threatening legal action against individuals who spread unverified information.

Malaysia started vaccinating its three million adolescents - aged 12 to 17 - last month as it abandoned its herd immunity goal and shifted its focus to broader vaccination coverage to transition to an endemic Covid-19 phase.

Following false claims regarding the deaths of teenagers last week, Malaysia's Health Ministry had to also deal with videos showing teenagers fainting outside a vaccination centre, parents not being allowed to accompany their children at vaccination centres, and a video of a vaccinator using an empty syringe on a teenager.

This has caused Deputy Health Minister Noor Azmi Ghazali, who is chairing the Covid-19 teenager vaccination task force, to issue consistent denials last week and subsequently threaten legal action against those spreading misinformation.

"I am reminding everyone not to disseminate unverified videos because it makes people unduly afraid, worried and anxious. I deeply regret this behaviour," Datuk Azmi said on Sunday (Oct 3).

A video featuring an unnamed woman claiming that three teenagers had died following Covid-19 vaccination made its rounds on social media last week, prompting Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin to brand it as a "flat-out lie".

Dr Azmi later clarified that the deaths mentioned were of unvaccinated adolescents who died because of various other health conditions.

Shortly after that, a video of a teenager appearing to lose consciousness after Covid-19 vaccination at a vaccination centre in Melaka made the rounds online. Dr Azmi later clarified that the teenager did not get sufficient rest and food prior to vaccination, and had recovered without any side effects following immediate monitoring by officials at the centre.

There was also a video that claimed that the vaccination programme for adolescent is being discontinued.

"Yes, it does impact parents' confidence," said Mrs Shammi Selvaamresh, a mother of two teenagers who are yet to be vaccinated, regarding the issues surrounding the programme currently.

"Human error cannot be tolerated in this instance; it is a matter of life and death," Mrs Shammi said. She was referring to yet another viral video last week that showed a Covid-19 vaccinator using an empty syringe on a teenager in Kuala Lumpur.

Reports of empty syringes and reduced dosage being used have plagued Malaysia's earlier adult vaccination programme, leading Mr Khairy - then Science, Technology and Innovation Minister - to allow recipients to record their vaccination process using their mobile phones.

Secondary school students sitting in an observation area after receiving a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at their school in Putrajaya on Sept 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Health Ministry said last Saturday that one parent or guardian will be allowed to accompany teenagers into the vaccination centres and be permitted to record the vaccination process. The vaccinator captured in the video using an empty syringe has been removed from vaccination duties, the ministry said.

Mrs Shammi, while acknowledging the need to have her children vaccinated, said that she has chosen to wait because she has concerns about crowding at vaccination centres.

Last week, the ministry urged parents not to crowd vaccination centres, after scaling back on its initial decision to allow walk-in Covid-19 vaccination for all teenagers. It said only those who are not in schools could walk in and get vaccinated, while adolescents at school would be given appointments through their respective schools.

The empty syringe video did spark some panic, said Madam Hanizah Hamid, a mother of two - one a teenager who has been partially vaccinated.

While Madam Hanizah had gotten her daughter vaccinated due to existing health concerns, she admitted that those with younger adolescents are more hesitant.

As at Monday, Malaysia has partially vaccinated 59.1 percent of its adolescents but only fully vaccinated 3.6 per cent of them. It aims to fully vaccinate all adolescents by January 2022, before the new school year starts next March.

Around 88 per cent of Malaysia's adult population has now been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The country is expected to lift interstate travel curbs over the next several days as adult vaccination reaches 90 per cent.

The country has fully vaccinated 63.4 per cent of its estimated 32 million population, and is scheduled to fully reopen its economy and transition into an endemic phase by the end of October.

Coronavirus infection numbers have been falling as the vaccination coverage increases. Malaysia recorded 8,817 cases on Tuesday, a day after reporting 8,075 cases - the lowest in three months. New cases have fallen by 60 per cent from a record high of 24,559 cases recorded on Aug 26.

Active Covid-19 cases have also dropped from a peak of more than 260,000 in late August to 142,860 on Tuesday. The country has recorded 26,759 deaths from the pandemic.

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