BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — The health minister has appealed to the public to take the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available, saying it is the most effective way to end the pandemic.

Reassuring Bruneians on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar said members of the public should not feel anxious or believe misleading information spread through social media.

A dozen countries have reported deaths after COVID-19 vaccines were administered but there is currently no evidence to suggest the jabs caused lethal effects.

“Studies showed that most of the reported deaths are not caused by vaccines but that the individuals had chronic health conditions,” the minister said during the Legislative Council proceedings on Wednesday.

Vaccine hesitancy could be a pitfall in the country’s efforts to combat COVID-19 after a survey found that only 59 percent of Brunei residents were willing to get inoculated.

The government aims to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the population to achieve herd immunity against the coronavirus.

Earlier this month, Brunei released its COVID-19 vaccination plans but a time frame on the vaccine rollout was not provided.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham further said the vaccine selection process is rigorous, taking into account safety by studying the data of scientific studies conducted for each COVID-19 vaccine.

Addressing challenges in securing COVID-19 jabs, the minister said there is a global shortage of vaccines even though pharmaceutical manufacturers promising to produce billions of doses of vaccine by 2021.

“Despite the limited vaccine options, the government is always mindful of ensuring our country acquires a sufficient number of vaccines through negotiations.

“Therefore, we should appreciate the government’s efforts in this matter by providing strong support to this vaccination programme,” he added.

The government has set aside $20 million to purchase COVID-19 vaccines in the 2021/22 financial year.

BruHealth app users were also urged to authenticate their accounts to ensure full access to health services. The app will be used to book appointments for COVID-19 vaccination.

‘Gov’t must strike balance between COVID control measures and economic needs’

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said border control must be balanced with economic needs, including allowing the entry of foreign workers to support the country’s economy.

COVID-19 control measures will continue as the global economy is not expected to fully recover until 2022, he said.

“The country will continue to quarantine anyone travelling from high-risk countries,” he said.

The Kuala Lurah Immigration Control Post on the Brunei-Malaysia border. Land borders have been closed to travellers since March 24, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/ The Scoop

Borders have remained closed since March 24 last year, but essential travellers can enter or leave the country once they have received approval from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Brunei has not detected any local transmission of the coronavirus since May 6, 2020.

The minister attributed the public support and compliance of health directives as a key factor in bringing the outbreak under control.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham also extended his gratitude to frontline workers and donors who contributed to the COVID-19 Relief Fund.

The fund collected $11.13 million, which was used to finance the construction of a new block for the National Isolation Centre in Tutong and purchase medical equipment.

Donors also funded the building of a new virology laboratory in Kg Sumbiling, enabling the country to speed up COVID-19 testing.

MoH to trim budget, review anti-smoking laws

The health ministry has tabled a FY 2021/22 budget of $375.99 million, a 1.8 percent cut from the previous fiscal year.

The bulk of the budget (55%) will go towards staff salaries, while 42 percent has been allocated for recurring expenses.

A separate budget of $11.2 million has been proposed to fund the ministry’s projects under the 11th National Development Plan.

“The amount is estimated to be able to fund all activities that have been planned, especially to support the development and well-being of the workforce, upgrade and preserve government assets, ensure smooth operations and services to patients are maintained,” the minister said.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the ministry is currently reviewing several legislation, including the Tobacco Order 2005 as smoking is still prevalent in Brunei.

The minister added that MoH has outsourced a number of its services to improve efficiency, including its pharmaceutical supply chain and dialysis services.

Calls to mental health helpline rise

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said mental health issues need to be given due attention as it can affect the country’s development. 

The ministry’s mental health helpline 145 received 2,474 calls from January to October 2020, compared to 2,278 calls in 2019.

The helpline was launched in February 2019 in the wake of rising suicide cases between 2016 and 2017.

It was previously reported that the hotline received hundreds of nuisance calls six months after its launch.

The ministry will focus on three areas in promoting mental health — the “Brunei Bebas Buli” school-based anti bullying campaign, i-Mind Programme to tackle mental health issues at workplaces and the “Jaga Minda Kita” program that aims to reach out to communities.

A medical worker at RIPAS Hospital’s Flu Clinic, the central place for COVID-19 testing in Brunei. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

Number of local doctors increases, but more healthcare workers needed

Bruneians now make up 51 percent of the government’s 738 doctors, up from 45 percent five years ago, the minister said.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said there are 112 local specialist doctors, an increase of 30 percent compared to 2015.

The health ministry employs 2,500 nurses, who represent 40 percent of its total workforce. The vast majority of nurses (95%) are Bruneians.

However, the minister said more doctors and other healthcare workers are needed in various medical specialties.