PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s recent move to include kids aged five to 11 in its Covid-19 inoculation programme will widen vaccine coverage at a crucial time as the number of cases has been surging, say experts.

There are 3,633,900 children aged five to 11, making up 11.1% of the country’s estimated 32,657,400 population, according to figures posted on the Health Ministry’s GitHub online repository.

As at Jan 31, 25,968,317 individuals or 79.5% of Malaysia’s estimated total population have registered for vaccination, according to the data on GitHub.

They include 517,412 children aged five to 11, who began receiving their jabs on Feb 3 after the government approved their inclusion in the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme.

Aside from rolling out booster shots to those aged 18 and above, experts said the move to raise the population share who qualify for vaccination are among key measures that could help to stem the Omicron tide.

Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud said with the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, anything that helps reduce its transmission is welcome.

“Although transmission protection against the Omicron variant is reduced in vaccinated persons compared with previous variants, there is still some reduction in transmission, so this will help to blunt the Omicron wave.

“By completing the Covid-19 vaccination for this age group, the children would help shield their parents, grandparents and the surrounding community from infection due to transmission protection from vaccination,” he said.

He added that it would be safer for schools to remain open and less interruption for these children whose education has been severely disrupted by Covid-19.

By completing the vaccination for adolescents (12- to 17-year-olds) and young children (five- to 11-year-olds), Prof Awang Bulgiba said it would bring the total vaccination percentage to around 90% of the population, making Malaysia one of the most successful countries in terms of Covid-19 vaccination.

“This may allow us to reach an equilibrium with the SARS-CoV-2 virus sooner rather than later,” he added.

Prof Awang Bulgiba said as herd immunity is no longer a viable outcome due to the emergence of Covid-19 variants, the community needs to rely on direct protection via vaccination.

“Direct protection requires that practically all children who are eligible be vaccinated,” he said.

He estimated that at a rate of 100,000 doses per day, the country may need four to five months to complete the vaccination of all children five to 11.

“If we are able to speed this up say to 200,000 doses per day while keeping the dosing interval to eight weeks, we could possibly shorten the total vaccination period to around three months.

“That would mean by the end of April or May 2022 we could theoretically vaccinate all children aged five to 11,” he said, adding that there may be other factors that may affect the vaccination rate.

Prof Awang Bulgiba said besides transmission protection, direct protection from vaccination can help reduce the risk of severe diseases via the cellular immunity (T-cells ++).

“Vaccinating children has been shown to help greatly reduce the incidence rate of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) in adolescents and this phenomenon is likely to happen too with children aged five to 11.

“Children who are not vaccinated will face increased risk of infection and if infected, face increased risk of having more severe disease and of transmitting the infection to others around them,” he said.

Prof Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh, who is with the Health Economics and Public Health Department of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, also emphasised that vaccination for children of this age can help protect the group from severe Covid-19 infections such as lung infections and deaths in light of the Omicron wave.

“Although Covid-19 in children is generally milder than in adults, some kids infected with the coronavirus can get severe lung infections, become very sick and require hospitalisation, and a few may die due to Covid-19.

“This is especially important to remember in light of the Delta and now the Omicron variant, which is more contagious than other coronavirus variants, more difficult to detect, and can still lead to long Covid among children,” she said.

‘Long Covid’ is a condition where people who have recovered from the disease still suffer persistent symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness, and neurocognitive difficulties.

Prof Sharifa Ezat said children infected with Covid-19 that develop rare complications such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MISC) may require intensive care or suffr lifelong symptoms that affect their health and well-being.

“In Malaysia, we have seen cases among children increasing in states with low vaccination rates and among the unvaccinated community.

“Since the pandemic began, US data shows that more than 2,300 cases of MIS-C have been reported in children ages five through 11 years,” she said.

She added that children with underlying medical conditions such as asthma, obesity, cancer, as well as immune compromised such as SLE (systemic lupus erythematosus), or are insulin-dependent diabetic, malnourished, have heart issues, or are disabled, are at a higher risk of developing severe illness from Covid-19 and long Covid.

“Unvaccinated children ages two years and older should wear a mask in public spaces and around people they don’t live with,” she said.

Prof Sharifa Ezat recommended that at least 70% of the five- to 11-year-old population should be inoculated by the end of the year or earlier.

“They’ll have better protection when they mingle with others in schools and in the community,” she said.

Malaysian Medical Association president Dr Koh Kar Chai said the country should aim to vaccinate as many children as possible and parents should arm themselves with the appropriate knowledge on the benefits of vaccination.

“Most of the adult population are already vaccinated, leaving the young ones without the protection of the vaccines.

“Parents should not rely on unverified postings on social media. They should speak to their family doctor to clear any doubts they have on the vaccination of children,” he said.