When Covid-19 vaccines first became available in the country, Alina (not her real name) who tends to orphans and underprivileged children at a childcare centre in Sarawak was determined to get jabbed.
Like hundreds of thousands of others across the country, she had been waiting for the opportunity to reclaim some of what had been taken by the virus following its arrival on Malaysian shores early last year.
She registered for the national immunisation programme and, on the day of her first jab, headed off to the vaccination centre.
After receiving her first dose of vaccine, though, she had an adverse reaction and is now reluctant to complete her second dose.
Alina is one of many who are experiencing what is sometimes referred to as vaccine hesitancy. Health workers have spoken to her many times, strongly advising her to complete her vaccination. They say that given her age – 61 – and her medical history of diabetes, she is at high risk of contracting the virus which has so far claimed more than 15,000 lives in the country.
Health experts warn that children and teenagers under 18 are particularly vulnerable to the virus as they are unlikely to have been vaccinated.
But Alina continues to refuse the second jab, convinced that it will kill her before the virus does.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she cited messages she had received on WhatsApp claiming that the Covid-19 jabs are lethal.
“I know about the importance of getting vaccinated,” she said.
“But I have also heard many stories about the effects of the vaccine. Some have also said that the reaction to the second dose might be twice as bad as the first time.”
When contacted, Sarawak Welfare, Community Wellbeing, Women, Family and Childhood Development Minister Fatimah Abdullah said Alina’s centre had not renewed its licence since 2018.
Fatimah also said such centres are only allowed to operate once the operator, supervisors and staff have all been fully vaccinated.
“All care centres must be registered with the Sarawak Social Welfare Department,” she said. “Otherwise, they cannot operate.
“If the licence has expired, it must be renewed because the registration process involves compliance with the requirements of technical agencies to ensure the safety, comfort and health of residents.”
In Alina’s case, apart from the risk of contracting the virus herself, there is also concern about the children under her care.
Health experts have warned that children and teenagers under 18 are particularly vulnerable to the virus as they are unlikely to have been vaccinated like grownups.
While the government recently gave the green light for children below the age of 12 to begin receiving vaccine shots under the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, minors still make up a sizeable proportion of the population who have yet to be jabbed.
In Sarawak, this is a concern given the recent surge in Covid-19 infections. On Aug 27, the state recorded over 2,200 new cases, taking its cumulative caseload to 107,296 with 513 deaths so far.
Sarawak’s vaccination push has seen 87.3% of its adults fully vaccinated and 90.7% given a first dose. Now, the majority of new infections reported in the state are either asymptomatic or mild cases.
But concern remains for the children.
“Children who are not yet vaccinated are more likely to be infected by their unvaccinated parents or caretakers,” Dr Ong Eng-Joe, a paediatrician at Borneo Medical Centre, told MalaysiaNow.
“The children can also perpetuate transmission within the community, causing more people to be infected and possibly die from Covid-19.”
“The risks of Covid-19 are great. Comparatively the vaccine’s adverse effects are relatively mild.”
A look at current ICU admissions and deaths shows that many involve unvaccinated individuals. For Alina, foregoing her second jab raises the risk of infection for the children in her care.
Since mid-August, children have accounted for 25% to 30% of positive cases detected in Sarawak. Of the three deaths recorded in the state on Aug 27, one was a 17-year-old male from Kuching who had comorbidities.
Ong said it was imperative for parents to be vaccinated in order to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their children.
She referred to a particularly severe complication arising from Covid-19 known as MIS-C or multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children.
“Covid-19 can result in death in some children,” she said. “They could come down with a severe infection and die from the disease.”
Another health expert, Dr Teh Siao Hean, agreed that parents and caretakers need to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and to vaccinate their children once jabs become available for them.
“Parents and guardians need to get the correct information about vaccination for the sake of the children,” Teh, from Sarawak’s chapter of the Malaysian Medical Association, said.
“The risks of Covid-19 are great. Comparatively the vaccine’s adverse effects are relatively mild,” she said, adding that adverse effects are rare.
“Parents and caregivers are the custodians of their children’s well-being. With the high prevalence of Covid-19, it is the children who now need protection by means of vaccination.”
At the childcare centre, though, Alina refuses to budge.
She says she is instead relying on Islamic practices by reading verses from the Quran to ensure the well-being and health of the children.
When the children are sick, she reads verses from the Quran over some water and gives it to them to drink.
They also gargle with salt water every morning when performing their ablutions.
“I’ll see,” she said when asked if she would vaccinate them once jabs are available for children.
“But don’t worry, we practise the eating of habbatus sauda (black cumin) as this was also recommended by the Prophet,” she added. “Habbatus sauda can heal every illness except death, Insya Allah.”