BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – A total of 666 children received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Saturday, as Brunei kicked off its COVID-19 vaccination drive for children ages 5-11.

The Ministry of Health (MoH) said 50,000 first doses have been made available for young children at six vaccination centres across the country.

“The vaccine is voluntary and it is not being used as a kind of passport for children to be allowed back to school. It’s part of our effort, besides bertawakkal, to prevent children from developing serious symptoms from COVID-19,” said health minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar.

He said although children are less likely to develop severe illness from coronavirus compared to adults, the healthcare system saw more children hospitalised during the Omicron-fuelled third wave, compared to the Delta-driven second wave last year.

There were two reported deaths among children aged 5-11 in Brunei — both were unvaccinated and had underlying health issues — and four cases of multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a rare but serious condition that causes inflammation of vital organs. 

“The Omicron strain causes milder symptoms most of the time for adults … But globally COVID-19 has resulted in a mortality rate of 0.03 percent [for children under 14]. That means that for every 10,000 children infected, three of them die,” YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said. 

Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham speaks to a parent at the Indoor Stadium vaccination centre on April 2, 2022. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Earlier this week, the health ministry urged parents of high-risk children — such as those with special needs or chronic health issues — to get their children vaccinated as they were more likely to develop complications from COVID.

To date, 12 percent of all recorded COVID infections in Brunei — that’s over 16,000 children — were under 12-years-old.

“We have provided parents with all the information, we want them to make their own judgement. If they feel it’s the right choice for them, then the government is providing the vaccine,” the minister said.

An informal poll conducted on The Scoop’s Instagram page showed that 74 percent were in favour of COVID vaccination for kids, while 24 percent said they were not. A total of 406 users responded to the poll over 24 hours.

Several respondents in the poll said they were apprehensive about the potential side effects in young children and uncertainty over long-term outcomes.

Data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), the world’s largest database system for monitoring vaccine safety, showed that 2.4 percent of children aged 5-11 had serious reactions to the vaccine, from the 8 million doses administered worldwide. From these, 11 cases of myocarditis (an inflammation of the muscle) were reported, but all children recovered. No child deaths have been directly linked to the vaccine.

Balloons were handed out to children receiving their first COVID jab at the Indoor Stadium. Brunei began vaccinating children ages 5-11 on April 2, 2022. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

One parent, Hannah Lim, said she was “pro-vaccine” and that her three sons aged 18, 14 and 7 were all vaccinated. 

I’m very keen about this vaccination because my 7-year-old son previously had issues with eczema, she said in an interview at the Indoor Stadium vaccination centre. “His immune system was compromised and there was an episode of temporary paralysis when he was 3-years-old.”

“So he’s seven now, and for me, getting the vaccination is crucial because I don’t know what’s going to happen if he gets COVID.

“These old issues may actually resurface and I wouldn’t want that. This is for his protection and for my family’s protection.”

She added, “I know there are parents who want to wait and see, because they want to see real data from Brunei, not just from overseas. This is also my way of showing my peers and people around us that it’s okay, it is really crucial to get vaccinated.”