Senior doctors, including retired government medical practitioners, want to assist the government in educating the public regarding the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme in a bid to address concerns related to the vaccine.
They say the government ought to share as much data and information related to the programme so that they can play advocate and advice the public on the importance of getting vaccinated.
Last week, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, said registration for the vaccination was still low. Only 6,442,512 people have signed up since March 24.
From this number, only 1.5 million of those aged 60 and above have registered although the plan was to start vaccinating 9.4 million people in this group beginning next month.
Senior consultant paediatrician Datuk Dr Amar Singh HSS said doctors outside the government sector are able to help dispel fear and raise people’s confidence in the vaccine.
“Although we are no longer in service, people still come to us for advice but we cannot just tell people it is safe. Our advice must be based on good sustainable data,” said Dr Amar.
He cited ignorance and other factors like lack of access to information and poor communication on the immunisation plan as the reason why people were reluctant to sign up.
“There is also a trust deficit as some people believe the authorities are not telling the truth. This can be resolved if there is a good communication plan via the mass media,” he said.
Dr Amar, the former head of the paediatric department at the Raja Permaisuri Bainun Hospital in Ipoh, Perak, said the aim of engaging the public should not just be on getting vaccinated, but there is also a need for a risk communication plan.
With questions raised on the safety of certain vaccines following reports worldwide of deaths arising post-inoculation, Dr Amar said investigations and reports on such matters must be transparent.
Citing South Korea as an example, Dr Amar said the scientists there had quickly determined that deaths emerging after vaccinations were unrelated. The authorities also increased efforts to communicate with the public by disclosing data of findings related to the deaths. This got their vaccination campaign back on track.
Drawing analogy to the recent death of a nurse in Sungai Petani who died on March 17 – a week after being vaccinated but was later reported to have died due to a heart attack – Dr Amar said more must be done to build people’s trust in vaccines.
“We need to know the results of the post-mortem, blood test and tissue samples. The public needs the reassurance,” he said.
“It’s not about being gung-ho that everything is fine. The Health Ministry should get independent people from outside to help. Feed us the data and we will share it with the public,” he said.
Former Malaysian Medical Association president Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan said the government has not done enough to educate the people on the immunisation plan.
“Even doctors in the private sector have not received updates on when they will be vaccinated despite signing up. What are they to tell their patients who come seeking advice?” Dr Thamrmaseelan asked.
He said one of the reasons why people were taking the wait-and-see approach is that they have entered a “comfort zone”.
“The pandemic has been around for over a year and people have become accustomed to dealing with issues related to the virus. They think they won’t be infected as long as they adhere to the standard operating procedures (SOPs).
“Doctors in the private sector are not your (the government’s) competitors. We can be advocates of vaccination, as long as we have the right information to share,” he added.
Dr Tharmaseelan, who is also Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Manipal University College Malaysia, said doctors from the private sector have voiced their willingness to assist the government since the pandemic broke out early last year, but the feedback from the authorities has been lacking.
“Even the Association of Private Hospitals had earlier this month asked to be part of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme but the government appears to see them as competition when we should be roped in as we can be their advocates.”
Association of Private Hospitals president Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh, earlier this month, said private hospitals felt they should assist should the government, as the immunisation programme was “extremely long and unacceptable”.
While getting vaccinated was a personal choice, Dr Tharmaseelan said suggestions that a deadline for vaccine registration be set was not right.
“We must communicate, teach and convince people on the benefits (of getting vaccinated). Nothing in medicine is a compulsion.
“Even if it is a matter of life or death, it is a patient’s right to give consent. Of course, a pandemic affects the health of a nation, but the message to get people to sign up must not only be clear but it must also be correct,” he added.