Booster shot hesitancy can only be countered with proper info

Much needed protection: Senior citizens waiting to receive their Covid-19 booster shot at a clinic in Bandar Puteri Puchong. Over a million Covid-19 booster shots have been administered in Malaysia since October, the Health Ministry reported. — GLENN GUAN/The Star

PETALING JAYA: Lack of clear information and communication on the benefits of accepting a third dose are the main reasons for Covid-19 booster hesitancy, say health experts, and they suggest increasing public education to encourage acceptance.

Universiti Malaya professor of epidemiology and public health Prof Dr Sanjay Rampal said the hesitancy was likely because the public was informed that the vaccination programme would help them get back to a normal life.

“Now the messaging appears to be changing without a clear end game.

“It would help the public if they are informed of the purpose of the booster programme, whether it is to decrease risk of transmission or to further decrease risk of severe disease and death,” he added.

There was still limited evidence on the need for a booster dose following primary vaccination, but it is likely that the older population would gain the most from such a programme, he said, adding that as such, the elderly and immunocompromised should be prioritised.

Prof Sanjay advised Malaysians to evaluate their absolute risk of severe disease and take the booster dose if they were at high risk.

Malaysian Public Health Physicians’ Association president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar said adding to public hesitancy over booster shots were also the perception that it is cumbersome to get a third dose and questions about the government’s recent move to extend the expiration date of vaccines.

On Tuesday, the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) approved shelf-life extensions for Covid-19 vaccines developed by Sinovac and Pfizer, from six months to 12 months and six months to nine months, respectively.

Dr Zainal Ariffin said due to the issues surrounding the subject of booster shots, constant and focused public engagement using statistics and studies were a must.

“The government must keep engaging with the people and focus on the above issues, using new data and information to provide explanations to address public concerns,” he said.

“The booster hesitant must also not be treated as anti-vaxxers. As for the public, I would advise them to get the right information and get vaccinated for their own good,” he added.

Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia president Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh said the fact that 40% of those eligible for booster shots did not turn up for their appointments was due to many factors.

Booster hesitancy was also worsened by reports from around the world with various views on the matter, including stories disputing its necessity and even ones spreading misinformation that a third dose is dangerous and deadly, he added.

Studies have shown that vaccinated individuals experience a decline of antibody levels months after completing vaccination and that booster shots could help individuals mount a more robust response against the virus, Dr Kuljit said.

“It is a novel virus and we learn as we go along.

“What we do know now is vaccination helps and we must educate the public on this,” he said.

Although vaccines from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinovac and Cansino were used in the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, initially, only Pfizer was approved as a booster shot in the country.

This led to public discussion over concerns of heterologous booster shots, where the booster vaccine used is different from the first vaccine.

On Wednesday, the Drug Control Authority gave conditional approval for the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines to also be used as booster shots.

Starting next Monday, those eligible for Covid-19 booster shots can also walk in, call in or email any private vaccination centre (PPV) to register their names on a waiting list.

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