KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 6 — With the Covid-19 vaccines slated to arrive in Malaysia by end February, medical experts here feel there is an urgent need for more education about them.
They say this waiting period should be utilised to educate the public about the real versus perceived potential side effects of the vaccines, as well as the consequences of taking versus not taking it.
“There is no such thing as a medicine that is 100 per cent safe for everyone, even something as common as paracetamol,” said consultant respiratory physician Dr Helmy Haja Mydin, referring to the medication used to treat pain and fever.
“If you vaccinate billions of people, some will develop side effects. We need to be clear about this and be clear regarding risk management.”
Dr Helmy suggested a campaign be mounted to help people understand the vaccines.
“This has to be done in an easy-to-understand fashion, and be repeated ad nauseam across all channels. From social media to news to speakers from cars.
“Get the mosques, churches and etc involved,” he said.
Dr Helmy was responding to the Health Ministry’s recent survey in which a third of Malaysians polled either feared or were suspicious of Covid-19 vaccines, with most stating a worry about possible side effects.
He, however, said it is still early days as the vaccines would take some time to arrive.
“It’s not a criticism, in that the vaccine is new. So there hasn’t been time to come up with an awareness campaign.
“But the next few weeks are an opportunity... we have time between now and vaccine deployment,” said Dr Helmy.
The Malaysia Medical Gazette managing editor Dr Khoo Yoong Khean said the focus should not only be on the one-third who expressed fear and doubts, but there is a need to look at vaccine confidence holistically.
“Building vaccine confidence needs to start much earlier and the key factor will be transparency,” said Dr Khoo who is a medical practitioner trained in primary, tertiary and emergency healthcare in various clinical specialties.
Citing previous reports that raised issues regarding non-disclosure agreements in relation to the Covid-19 vaccine, Dr Khoo said the vaccination timeline and execution plan needs to be laid out clearly so that it can build public confidence and address concerns about the vaccine.
“The general messaging is simple: what, why and how.
“What are the types of vaccinations, dosages, potential expected side effects; why is the purpose of vaccination; to protect the frontliners or those who are vulnerable for now, and build herd immunity later; and how is the logistics details, how the public can access the vaccination,” he said.
When commenting specifically on the one-third who are distrusting of the vaccine, Dr Khoo said preconceived opinions are sometimes hard to change, but an attempt should be made to try to correct (these preconceived opinions), not only because of the harm they might inflict on themselves but the harm they might influence others to do.
“I think the most effective method to build vaccine confidence and change the minds of those who reject it is through healthcare providers.
“Generally, in a pandemic, the doctors have the highest public trust. So doctors have a very important role to advocate for the vaccine, from the national level through press conferences by people like the Health director-general to community level consultations by family general practitioners (GPs), through social media, and more,” he said.
The second group, according to Dr Khoo, would be religious organisations, non-governmental organisations, media, even large businesses all can play a part to build vaccine confidence.
He added that celebrities, public figures can also play a role. Getting them to endorse the safety and efficacy of the vaccine can reinforce the social norm around vaccination.
Dr Khoo, however, did not agree with mandatory vaccinations (of Covid-19) by law for now.
“The vaccine is new, there are legitimate concerns and instead of using a law to force everyone to comply, which is quite likely to push anti-vaccination groups further, it is better to try and educate and raise awareness instead.
“Back to the general messaging, even if we know two-thirds accept the vaccination, it doesn’t mean they won’t change their minds.
“So we have to keep in mind their concerns too, for example how can they get the vaccines, reliability of transportation and storage, which vaccine will they get.
“All these are valid concerns and should be addressed as clearly and soonest possible to avoid misinformation being spread,” he added.
Azrul Mohd Khalid of Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy also agreed that the government must invest in an aggressive health communications campaign that addresses the worries and concerns of the general public, and answer their questions.
“It must also push back against the efforts of anti-vaxxers who have taken advantage and exploited these fears.
“The programme must aim to inform and educate the public regarding the safety and urgency of any potential and approved vaccine to build confidence and trust,” said Azrul.
He added that it is a necessary component for any public health Covid-19 vaccination campaign to succeed.
“Such investment is also necessary to ensure that long-lasting harm is not inflicted on other vaccination efforts such as for pneumococcal disease, tuberculosis or measles,” he added.