YABhg Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Hj Mohd Ali today urged Malaysian families to protect their most vulnerable members – young children and ageing parents – from the dangers of influenza (the flu) by getting them vaccinated against the disease.
She was speaking at the launch of the ‘Flu Prevention is an Act of Love’ campaign organised by Immunise4Life (IFL), in association with the Malaysian Influenza Working Group (MIWG) and the Vaccination is Protection (VIP) initiative.
IFL is a major community education programme involving the collaboration of Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH), Malaysian Paediatric Association (MPA), and Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases & Chemotherapy (MSIDC).
Tun Siti, who is Patron of the IFL programme, pointed out that the flu is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, children under 5 years old, adults over 65, and people with health conditions (like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease).
She said it is vital for everyone in these high-risk groups to get vaccinated against the flu, adding that she and her husband, Prime Minister YAB Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, make it a point to get their flu vaccinations every year.
According to Professor Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, IFL Technical Committee Chairman, children and adults are constantly under threat from a host of vaccine-preventable diseases including the flu, pneumococcal disease, meningitis, chicken pox, and so on. Unfortunately, uptake of these additional recommended vaccines is low, especially in relation to the flu.
Datuk Zulkifli explained: “Many individuals do not see the need to vaccinate because they confuse the flu (caused by influenza viruses) with the common cold (caused by rhinovirus and other viruses). This is a deadly mistake because, unlike the cold which is harmless, the flu can kill.
“Both infections share similar symptoms, like a cough, sore throat, and runny nose. Trouble is, people fail to realise they have the flu when other symptoms emerge – such as, fever, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and sometime, diarrhoea.
“Some infected persons may overcome the flu and recover, but others may not. Owing to their age and pre-existing health conditions, they may develop severe illness and potentially fatal complications including inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia), heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle tissues (myositis), and multi-organ failure.”
Datuk Zulkifli pointed out that concern over poor awareness of the flu led the IFL programme to mount the “Flu Prevention is an Act of Love” campaign. He expressed his gratitude to Tun Siti for personally advocating flu vaccination in a series of videos on the family (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OR2x6Xjvow), young children (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoiKXdk6O-s), and senior citizens (https://youtu.be/d95mE8GL530)
He said: “We are confident Tun Siti’s heart-felt messages will resonate deeply with the Malaysian public and help them understand that vaccinating their young children or ageing parents against the flu will be an act of love.
“Tun Siti’s efforts are further complemented by other related content. These include educational articles, expert videos, as well as real-life ‘flu stories’ or testimonials from an older couple and a social media influencer whose child was hospitalised after contracting the disease.
“We have also produced a dramatic short film, called ‘Mak’ (https://youtu.be/xFD7vtBgTDE), about the relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law who, unfortunately, catches the flu and passes away.”
Datuk Zulkifli added: “We hope to appeal to the publics’ minds and hearts through a combination of story-telling, personal advocacy, expert advice, and medical information. Our core content is available in English and Bahasa Malaysia on www.actoflove.ifl.my. There is also an interactive flu checker (https://actoflove.ifl.my/flucheckerseniors/seniorcheckerenglish.php) to help caring adult children better understand their ageing parents’ flu vaccination needs.”
According to Professor Dr Zamberi Sekawi, MIWG Chairman, the World Health Organisation estimates that about 1 billion flu cases occur every year, of which 3 to 5 million are severe, and result in up to 650,000 deaths worldwide.
He remarked: “Older persons account for 90% of all flu-related deaths. Their lungs and immune systems have weakened with age, thus making them susceptible to secondary infections, like pneumonia. Those with certain chronic health conditions are also more likely to develop a stroke, heart attack, diabetic emergencies, and respiratory failure as a result of the flu. Getting vaccinated would significantly reduce their risk of flu and shape a more optimistic outlook for our senior citizens.”
Shifting his focus to young children, he said: “Those who are hospitalised for influenza have a high chance of getting admitted into intensive care, experiencing respiratory failure, developing bacterial co-infection, or even dying. The risk is greater for those with chronic health problems, like asthma and Type 1 diabetes. Vaccination will help prevent them from catching the disease from their school mates and passing on the infection to their siblings and parents at home.”
Professor Zamberi stressed that flu protection for children should begin in pregnancy. He said: “The flu may put expectant mums at higher risk of developing pneumonia, ear and blood infections. The flu may also increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term birth, and low birth weight. Thankfully, vaccination during pregnancy has been shown to be safe and protects both mother and baby throughout this sensitive period and up to several months after birth.”
Professor Zamberi reiterated that we should be vaccinated annually. He explained: “Flu viruses are constantly mutating and tend to circulate during the winter months in temperate countries before quickly spreading to the rest of the world, thanks to the millions of travellers who traverse the globe each day. Getting a flu vaccination every year helps ensure we are protected from the latest circulating viruses. Do not think you only need to be vaccinated before going abroad because the flu will find its way to our shores and last all year round in our country.”