A World Immunisation Week message: Don’t let the fear of COVID-19 put your child at risk of deadly vaccine-preventable diseases.
As mothers and fathers, we cannot help but feel afraid for our children at this time. We are living amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that is sweeping across the world like wildfire. No doubt, this is a defining global health crisis of our time.
Like the SARS and A (H1N1) influenza pandemics that came before, COVID-19 is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. It is highly infectious, develops rapidly, and it can kill by causing pneumonia in both lungs as well as restricting oxygen absorption.
We worry over the rising number of COVID-19 cases throughout the world. The call to “flatten the curve” is enough to persuade us to obey the government’s movement control order (MCO) and quietly stay home. We practise physical distancing when venturing outside for an unavoidable trip to the shops for groceries and needs.
Unfortunately, fear of COVID-19 has also caused some parents to stop or delay bringing their babies or children to the clinic for their immunisation shots. “Are clinics safe? Will there be COVID-19 patients there? Is there a risk of catching the disease from the attending nurse or doctor?” It is understandable to have these questions swirling in the mind.
However, we should also be asking, “Isn’t it more risky to miss baby’s immunisation?” The answer is a resounding “YES!”. Currently, immunisation under the National Immunisation Programme protects children from 12 serious diseases (vaccine preventable diseases). These include tuberculosis, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, haemophilus influenzae B, measles, mumps, rubella, Japanese encephalitis, and various cancers caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).
All the vaccines, except HPV, need to be given within the first 18 months of life. It is important that baby receives all the doses required for each vaccine at the right times in order to be fully protected. Delaying or skipping the immunisation schedule can leave baby vulnerable and defenceless against the multitude of germs intent on infecting baby’s body.
This is why, the Director-General (DG) of Health, Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, recently issued a statement advising parents not to put off their babies’ immunisation. He assured that government maternal and child health clinics are open as usual to serve the children’s immunisation needs.
Dr Rozita Binti Ab Rahman, Senior Principal Assistant Director at the Ministry of Health’s Family Health Development Division, shared a few insights and tips on how parents can safely and confidently bring their babies to the clinic.
She said, “First and foremost, parents need to adhere to their immunisation appointments. We have arranged staggered appointment for all our patients. We urge you to arrive on time, at the appointed time. Your cooperation will enable the staff to space out all visits and avoid crowding.
“Before making the trip to the clinic, be sure to bring along baby’s immunisation record book. In case the police stop you along the way, show them the book to prove the purpose of your journey. The police will let you through.”
Dr Rozita went on to explain that, as a precautionary measure, healthcare workers will conduct a general screening on you and your baby. “Once you arrive at the clinic, the staff will take your temperature at the triage counter. They will also ask if your baby or you are having any symptoms of influenza-like-illness (such as fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat) and shortness of breath. In addition, they will enquire whether you have returned from abroad recently or have been in contact with any COVID-19 patients. Please answer truthfully during this screening.
“Any patient showing symptoms will be directed to a designated area for further screening and treatment. However, if you pass the screening stage, you will be permitted into the clinic. Disinfect your hands with your sanitiser. If you did not bring it, feel free to use the hand sanitisers that are available. Please observe physical distancing at least one meter from the nearest patient while awaiting your turn.
“Only one person – either the mother or the father – will be allowed to bring baby into the vaccination room. This keeps the number of people present to the minimum and prevents congestion.
“Baby will still receive the usual high-quality, personalised care and attention. However, time spent in the clinic will be kept to a minimum. Parents and their babies come in, get the jab and go.”
Dr Rozita added that staff at the health clinic also implement a number of precautionary measures to further minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19. These include wearing personal protective equipment at all times, consisting of a face mask, gloves, and an apron (with or without face shields). They also use hand sanitisers frequently and maintain good personal hygiene at all times.
She added, “In any case, parents will be comforted to know that not all health clinics conduct sampling for detection of COVID-19. Only certain clinics are involved.”
Dr Rozita encouraged parents who had missed their children’s scheduled immunisations during the MCO period to call their respective health clinics and make a fresh appointment.
She advised those who are still outstation and unable to return home to bring their children to any nearby government health clinic for their immunisation shots.
She concluded: “We are worried about the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases if children are not immunised on time. So, we hope that parents will not delay or stop bringing their babies to the clinics.
“We should take advantage of the protection that immunisation can provide and keep our children safe from vaccine-preventable diseases that are also dangerous.”
Immunise4Life programme chairman, Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail also encourages parents to follow the immunisation schedule despite the implementation of MCO.
Datuk Dr Zulkifli, who is also a Consultant Paediatrician and Paediatric Cardiologist said, “The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently issued a statement warning that disruption to routine immunisation activities, even for a short period of time, will raise the likelihood of outbreak-prone vaccine preventable diseases. These include measles, diphtheria, pertussis and so on.”
According to Datuk Dr Zulkifli, MOH’s decision to continue providing routine immunisation services during the MCO is in line with WHO’s recommendations. After all, local transmission of COVID-19 in our country is still under control and our health system capacity remains intact.
“However, if parents wish, they have the option of taking their children to a private clinic for immunisation,” he said.
Both Dr Rozita and Datuk Dr Zulkifli agreed that it is important to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, it is equally crucial to continue protecting our children from vaccine-preventable diseases.