KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 20 — Malaysia was on high alert as soon as the Philippines reported a polio outbreak in September, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said today following claims Putrajaya didn’t do enough to vaccinate children.
Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye added that the government knew that Sabah, which is the nearest Malaysian state to the Philippines, would be a high-risk area due to the movement of the population in and out of the state.
“Unfortunately, of course, this case happened, (but) it (is) one case so far,” he told a press conference on the sidelines of an antibiotics-related event at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang earlier today.
Sabah assistant education and innovation minister Jenifer Lasimbang, who previously worked with Unicef, recently accused MOH of dismissing the United Nations agency’s calls five years ago to vaccinate undocumented people in Sabah for free.
A three-month-old Malaysian baby boy from Tuaran, Sabah, became the first reported polio case in Malaysia 27 years after the last case in 1992, and 19 years after Malaysia was declared polio-free in 2000.
Tests showed the boy was infected with a polio strain that shared genetic links with the virus detected in the Philippine cases, which has since reported an eighth case of polio.
Polio, which mainly affects children below five years of age, invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in hours. There is no cure for polio, but it can be prevented through vaccination.
Dr Lee today did not specify what MOH did to control the outbreak from spreading to Sabah following the Filipino outbreak, and before the Tuaran case.
He, meanwhile, noted that the incubation period for the Tuaran boy’s case was already over, and was hopeful that MOH has contained polio from spreading in that vicinity, adding that all local children in Sabah have been vaccinated.
But he cautioned that the vaccination cycle needed to be completed before it could guarantee a 99 per cent chance of protection from polio, citing the Tuaran boy’s case, who was only vaccinated once and contracted the disease before the second dose could be administered.
“The first dose of vaccination gives you about 20 per cent protection, (the) second dose, given at three months, gives you about 80 per cent (protection and) only when you have completed the three doses, do you get 99 per cent protection,” Dr Lee said.
Dr Lee, meanwhile, said it was difficult vaccinating undocumented children, noting that while they do pose a public health concern for MOH, vaccinating all of them would involve significant costs for the ministry.
“We are not talking about a few million a year. We are talking about tens and millions a year,” he said, adding that this would not just involve polio vaccination, but the whole range of vaccinations in the national immunisation programme such as vaccination for diphtheria and neonatal tetanus, for example.
He also spoke of current efforts to vaccinate all children aged between two months and five years in the Tuaran village — local, undocumented and foreign — as well as other high-risk spots which undocumented children frequent in the state, following the Tuaran polio incident.
MOH will now vaccinate all children from the same age group in Sabah against the polio virus, which Dr Lee said will take a while as the oral-polio vaccine (OPV) — which is cheaper and easier to administer — needs to be procured from abroad, and it cannot be just flown in by an aeroplane; it needs to be cold enough to be viable and transported.
“We are still discussing with Unicef, WHO (the World Health Organization), and the Philippines government because they got (a) cheaper source of vaccines,” he added.
Asked about making vaccination compulsory in Malaysia, Dr Lee maintained MOH’s stance that they were still discussing it, taking into account that Malaysia has achieved a 95 per cent rate of vaccination for preventable diseases, which he said is on par with international standards.