Expedite vaccinating children against COVID-19 – Experts

KUALA LUMPUR – Experts lauded the Drug Control Authority’s (DCA) approval for the use of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 12 and above but urged the government to speed up the vaccination process for them.

They said children should also be included in the high-risk group as the number of youngsters contracting COVID-19 is on the rise. Not only that but severe cases involving children are also being reported now with some of them requiring respiratory assistance.

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Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the DCA approved the use of Comirnaty vaccine, produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, for children aged 12 and above at its meeting on Tuesday.

However, he said the Ministry of Health (MOH) is of the view that the “priority of vaccination is still for high-risk groups” in line with the existing policy set under the National COVID-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK).

The DCA comes under the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency in MOH.

The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, meanwhile, is targeting the vaccination for children to take effect before the third phase of PICK begins sometime in August.

PICK is currently in its second phase, which is focused on vaccinating senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Department of Social Welfare Malaysia (JKM) deputy director-general (operations) Fatimah Zuraidah Salleh told Bernama in an interview recently that Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rina Harun had recently voiced her concern over the increasing number of children affected by COVID-19.

“The ministry is hoping to start the vaccination drive for children before the third phase (of PICK) sets in so that they can be protected against COVID-19 sooner,” Fatimah Zuraidah said, adding that the ministry has already got in touch with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) over this issue.

She said her ministry would also work closely with MOSTI, the Ministry of Health and the Special Committee on COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Access Guarantee to safeguard the welfare and health of children in this country.

Can be fatal

Between Jan 25, 2020, and May 30 this year, some 82,341 COVID-19 cases have been reported nationwide among children aged below 18.

Children aged between 13 and 17 comprised the highest number of cases at 27,402, followed by children aged from seven to 12 (26,851), zero to four (19,851) and five to six (8,237).

Hospital Universiti Teknologi Mara (HUiTM) paediatrician and neonatologist Dr Masri Muhamed welcomed the DCA’s approval for the use of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged between 12 and 17, saying that the news is a big relief to parents as their children can return to school safely.

He said although children infected by the virus usually suffered milder symptoms when compared to adults, it, however, must be noted that COVID-19 positive children faced a mortality rate of up to 50 percent.

“When children with COVID-19 develop serious complications, their condition can deteriorate fast and can lead to death,” he added.

Dr Masri said children aged below 18 comprised 30 percent of the nation’s population and hence, vaccinating them will help Malaysia to attain herd immunity faster.

“Since 80 percent of the nation’s population has to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, giving the vaccine to children can be viewed as the key to winning the fight against COVID-19,” he said.

Dr Masri, who is also a committee member of the mega COVID-19 vaccination centre at UiTM Puncak Alam, said Malaysia should follow the examples of countries such as the United States, Singapore and Hong Kong that recently started offering the Pfizer vaccine to children above 12 years of age.

He said clinical trials carried out overseas have shown that the vaccine is safe for children; it also proved effective in protecting them against COVID-19.

So far, about one million children above 12 years of age in the United States have received the first dose of the vaccine, he said, adding that studies are also being carried out on the use of the Moderna and Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines on children.

Respiratory aid

In the course of treating children with COVID-19 at Hospital Sungai Buloh where he works on an on call basis, Dr Masri found that these days more children admitted as COVID-19 patients required respiratory equipment such as high flow nasal cannula (HFNC) and bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) to deliver oxygen and help them to breathe.

“What I’m seeing right now is different from what I saw when the virus first spread outside Wuhan in China (in early 2020).

“In the earlier days, children normally manifested mild symptoms such as fever or sore throat and their blood test results would usually be normal. But now, more child patients are requiring respiratory aid such as HFNC and BiPAP. Children with a history of illnesses such as asthma and heart problems manifest even more serious symptoms,” he pointed out.

The expert said there have also been several cases of newborn babies testing positive for the COVID-19 virus and who have to be placed in the neonatal intensive care unit. In all these cases, their mothers tested positive for the virus when they underwent swab tests just before the delivery process.

“A lot of issues arise when mother and baby are infected by the virus. The parents, for example, will feel sad and regretful as they know they are the cause of their baby’s infection.

“The situation worsens if the parents develop serious COVID-19 and have to be intubated. Who will look after the baby? It’s worse if the family concerned is from the low-income group or has lost their source of income,” he said.

Urging all parents and guardians to get the COVID-19 vaccine, he said it is their responsibility to protect themselves and their children against the deadly disease.

Guidelines

Meanwhile, JKM’s Fatimah Zuraidah said the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry has drawn up guidelines to stem the transmission of COVID-19 among children.

These guidelines for the Movement Control Order (MCO) and post-MCO periods clearly outline the procedures to follow in the new normal situation to curb COVID-19 transmissions among children.

“The guidelines were drawn up with the guidance of MOH and they encompass observing the 3Ws (wash, warn and wear) and avoiding the 3Cs (crowded places, confined spaces and close conversations),” she said.

Fatimah Zuraidah also said that all new cases would have to undergo swab tests before being admitted into any children’s institution run by JKM.

She also urged parents to ensure their children’s safety during these trying times by providing them with a safe and healthy living environment.

“They must heed the NSC’s (National Security Council) directive to keep children away from crowded places. We need the cooperation of everyone to flatten the COVID-19 infection curve and keep our children safe,” she added.