SHOULD vaccination be compulsory?
That is the thorny question before Malaysians drawn into a controversy that should not have seen light of day.
The issue has snowballed into gargantuan proportions in the wake of the revelation that five children have died of diphtheria since January.
The fatalities come in the wake of startling statistics that show 1,500 people nationwide did not vaccinate their children last year with 500 from January to March only, ostensibly for religious or seemingly medical reasons.
Even with explanations from medical experts and the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) allaying fears over the halal status of vaccines, detractors remain unconvinced.
Vaccination is a proven blanket effort to ensure the young do not fall prey to the dozen diseases that haunt them from birth.
It has been a time-tested method among Malaysians who bear the telltale signs of inoculation on their arms that has afforded them lifetime protection against these virulent diseases.
The debate over the merits of vaccination has narrowed down today to the question of legislation.
One would expect Health Ministry senior officials to be of one mind in the matter with the vote, of course, veering towards legislation.
What is surprising is that these officials, guardians of public health as it were, appear to be divided on the issue.
Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam wants a softer approach through education and engagement while deputy Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya holds the diametrically opposite view.
Dr Hilmi’s sentiments on Friday were quite clear when he said the ministry was looking at making vaccination compulsory.
In fact, he had added that the ministry would be engaging the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to iron out issues related to the exercise.
Three days later, Dr Subramaniam shot down his deputy by saying vaccination would not be compulsory for now as ‘‘not all matters could be enforced by law”.
Former director-general of health and medical services, Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican, weighed in on the “aye” side of the debate with a timely reminder of the merits of vaccination.
The man-on-the-street can, therefore, be excused for being befuddled by these opposing views from medical practitioners-cum-politicians who appear to be on different sides of the equation on an important issue like vaccination.
Can we have a singular sentiment from the powers-that-be on whether legislation is, indeed, necessary to save children from diphtheria and measles and a host of other diseases?
Singapore, like a number of other countries, has made vaccination mandatory as an early effort towards ensuring public health.
Should Malaysia swing towards legislation when a consensus reached decades ago on vaccination may be breached by ‘‘homegrown” Internet doctors and a few with new-fangled religious conviction threatening to throw the spanner in the works?
That, indeed, is the question.