Nearly two years after the arrival of Covid-19 in the country, many remain hesitant about coming forward for vaccination in a tendency which experts say could affect Malaysia’s efforts to reach herd immunity from the virus which has so far killed more than 17,000.
Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh, an expert in public health at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said their concerns have been compounded by the propaganda spread by what is popularly known as the anti-vaxxer community.
“The main problem is confronting those who are afraid because they frequently make false claims about the vaccines,” she told MalaysiaNow.
“It is more dangerous when they use half-truths because these make their claims easier to believe.”
She said those who are sceptical about the vaccines are less of a problem as they only reject the jabs out of a lack of understanding about their effectiveness.
“If someone explains it to them and gives them further information, they usually end up agreeing to get jabbed.”
Putrajaya is aiming to achieve herd immunity against Covid-19 by fully vaccinating at least 80% of the population.
The health ministry has been ramping up its efforts on multiple platforms to raise awareness about the importance of being vaccinated against the highly contagious virus.
As of Sept 2, 47.2% of the population had been double-jabbed, taking the country closer to the halfway point.
However, the activities of anti-vaxxers, especially on social media, could pose a threat to the herd immunity goal.
Sharifa said examples of the half-truths spread by anti-vaxxers include claims that the side effects of vaccines on the heart can cause death.
“It’s true that vaccines can have an effect on the heart but they do not cause mass deaths,” she said. “The ratio for this is perhaps one in 1,000.”
She suggested that the health ministry enlist a variety of ways to convince anti-vaxxers of the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.
“For example, they could reach out in more creative ways such as by employing influencers on social media,” she said.
She also referred to the approach by Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, who had met with teachers in the state who rejected vaccination.
“This is a good example,” she said. “Meet them on good terms, listen to their comments, and then explain about the vaccines.”
Sharifa said the health ministry might also consider changing the wording of vaccine consent forms which state, among others, that recipients agree to take responsibility for any risks that might arise following their vaccination.
“This sentence could be changed to something that won’t scare off potential vaccine recipients,” she said.
“Maybe that the recipient understands the possible side effects, not that he or she must be responsible for the risks.
“As I understand it, in the event of adverse effects such as hospitalisation or deaths, the government will give compensation and patients will be given hospital treatment for free,” she added.
Meanwhile, Dr Muhammad Amir Yunus, a virologist at Universiti Sains Malaysia, said many anti-vaxxers have ingrained trust issues.
“Or, for example, religion – they believe that vaccines are not permissible and should be avoided at all costs. They truly believe that the cons of vaccines outweigh the pros.”
He said others also believe conspiracy theories linking the vaccines to microchips or 5G signals.
He said sceptics should not be considered as anti-vaxxers as they are only cautious about the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines.
“They believe in the vaccines developed before this, just that with Covid-19, the vaccines are new and have never been used before.
“So they think that the evidence from current data is not very strong.”
He said others might hesitate due to widespread reports on the side effects of the vaccines.
“For instance, the risk of blood clots – even though the percentage of those affected by this is very low compared to the effects of being infected by the virus itself,” he said.