The venerable Tun Dr Siti Hasmah talks about vaccination, health, and her time as a doctor
Out of all the people we had a conversation with that we would tell our children and grandchildren about, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah would be on the top of the list.
After going through tight and rigorous security clearances, we found ourselves in one of the discussion rooms in The Prime Minister’s office in Putrajaya. Excited about our shortly coming encounter, we nervously go through our prepared questions. Tun Dr Siti Hasmah came in with her aide at her side, guiding her to the sofa where she will be seating throughout our interview.
Before sitting down however, she greeted each of us personally – asking our names and trying her best to remember them. Once she had sat down and ready for the interview, time kind of escapes the room and we were fully engaged to her and her stories.
The misinformation on vaccination
As we are talking to a pioneer in championing women and children’s health in Malaysia, there is no way we wouldn’t ask her about the problem with vaccination currently plaguing our society.
There is a sudden uprising of anti-vaccine movement among Malaysians now, and it typically plagues the young parents who are heavily engaged to social media. The lightning quick communication and information transferred between social media profiles makes it easy to spread misinformation and to promote fear-mongering among users. And the trend now is to spread false information and mongering fear about vaccines and immunisation – unsurprisingly to support the interests of a few.
In Tun Dr Siti’s vast experience in public health, she says that this type of resistance among public is not a new occurrence. “In any project that we wanted to start, be it immunisation or other medical-related activities, it would always meet with some type of resistance or skepticism from the public.”
She talks about her time during the early 50’s to late 70’s, where she was stationed in Kedah as a medical doctor and having to bring along new treatments and medicines to rural areas of the country. “We would always find challenges in convincing the local people that they will need these medicines, or go through examinations to preserve their health. But understandably, it was because they were living in rural areas of the country, and have very little access to new information,” she explains.
The tribulations of yesterday
Tun Dr Siti is no stranger to seeing these infectious diseases such as diphtheria and measles’ effects on people. She tells about her time while completing her housemanship in Hospital Kuala Lumpur, where every night they would find a mother coming into the emergency room with their children experiencing severe reaction to these diseases.
“There were many times when we would find a crying mother coming into the hospital with a baby that was practically blue in the face because they couldn’t breathe. It is one of the more severe symptoms of diphtheria, where a membrane of mucus builds up in the throat and causing the person to not be able to breathe.”
“I remember having a baby on a counter, with his head hanging down on my lap, left hand holding his head and right hand holding a scalpel. I located the trachea and puncture it to provide an airway for the baby to breathe. Once a hole was created, the baby would sputter all the muck and mucus out from the throat, slowly changing his face from blue to pink again. The mother cries fervently along the way, changing from devastated to relief. And that were only the ones we had time to save.”
“However, according to her, she finds that the parents back then – despite living in rural areas and have lesser information, trusted the doctors more than the people would today.”
The trials of today
What is different in today’s challenges on public health is the over-abundance of information readily available to us all – including the ones skewed to condemn modern medicine.
“It is sad that we had a few cases recently which have led to death caused by a disease that were, for a long time, deemed almost extinct,” she laments.
She talks about the case in Johor earlier this year, where a child died due to diphtheria. Reports have found that the toddler had never been immunised since birth. “It deeply saddens me that these diseases we have been fighting to eradicate for a very long time suddenly comes back due to parents’ reluctance to have their children be vaccinated.”
The Ministry of Health’s immunisation programme throughout the 60’s and 70’s were so effective in bringing down deadly infectious diseases that diseases such as polio, diphtheria, and measles were practically eradicated.
“I feel sad because the young mothers and even the professionals who are against immunisation, they actually have been vaccinated when they were small by their parents. Therefore why are they now rejecting vaccination for their children? Don’t you want to give your child the chance to live the way you lived when you were a child? It is not fair,” she strongly states.
The reason for the uprising
Tun Dr Siti Hasmah says that the reasons why a part of the society now is rejecting immunisation and vaccines comes down to two. Religion and commercial motives.
“Some have been skeptical of the use of vaccines because of its halal status. Islam teaches us to be mindful of the things we consume, and to ensure the things we consume is halal. Therefore even the slightest doubt that vaccines could somehow not be halal is enough to drive some away from it.”
She continues; “The other is the commercial side of things. The ones who promote alternative methods of preventing diseases. The problem is that if you are opting for these alternative methods, you need to make sure that there is concrete proof of its effectiveness.”
“Yet to me, immunisation through injection have enough research and proof of its effectiveness that it would be unwise to consider the lesser. It is just the only way we know to lower the risk of diseases.”
Alternative methods to keep healthy
In terms of alternative methods in general, she states that for most, the reason for them to opt for alternative methods of keeping healthy is because the lack the confidence in the medication given to them by their doctors.
She also says that it is very hard to keep up with all of the natural methods to keep healthy. “I was told that it is good to have lemon juice, extra virgin coconut oil, sesame oil, and so on and so forth. So by the time you want to go for lunch, you will be fully marinated to be cooked well done,” she jokes heartily.
Give them a good life
According to Tun Dr Siti Hasmah, the immunisation through vaccination have been tested and used for many years, bearing results that is undeniably prevalent. Alternative methods that lack proof and testing just doesn’t have a place in the effort to immunise our children and society as a whole.
She also speak to the mothers and fathers who are skeptical, or reject the use of vaccines on their children. “I appeal to these young mothers to please remember that you are enjoying the life you have today and have been blessed with children yourselves because of immunisation. Please give your children the chance to live the life you have, a healthy life.” — The Health
The Health | july, 2019
Tun Dr Siti’s thoughts on wellbeing
Our mental health
The matter of the current state of mental health in Malaysia also came up during our talk. To which Tun Dr Siti Hasmah starts; “There is a lot of stress these days yeah? I mean, there are so much problems we have to deal with nowadays. To the point where I get stressful when people come to me and talk about their problems,” she jokes.
She laments about the stress parents are instilling to their children in terms of education nowadays. “Children in kindergartens having tuition classes?” She asks hypothetically. “They are pushing their children to learn and learn, this is unneeded stress to the children.”
“It gets worse when these mothers start to membawang (gossip), they start to compare their children. And the ones who feel like their children is performing lesser would then force them to learn more and more. This type of things can significantly affect the children as they grow older, and they might have a lot of stress bottled up in them which can lead to dangerous behaviours.”
With her experience in family medicine, it is no surprise that her concerns sways towards parents and children when it comes to mental health.
From city girl to rural hero
Tun Dr Siti Hasmah also opened up and talked about her time on duty during the 50’s to the 70’s as a doctor in Alor Setar, Kedah.
“I was born in Selangor, and had completed my housemanship in Hospital Kuala Lumpur. I always thought that my life will have me be in the city. But when I married this man from Kedah, I had to move to the rural area of Alor Setar back in the 60’s,” she states lightly.
She was a part of the team, the pioneers to go into rural areas and promote better health through vaccination and other treatments of diseases.— The Health