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An Ecosystem Approach To Address Respiratory Syncytial Virus in Malaysia

RSV is a highly contagious respiratory infection that affects premature infants or babies younger than six months old who have compromised immune systems, lungs, and heart.

Parent Nursyahirah shared the challenges in caring for her child Wan Nur Afeeya who was born prematurely at 25 weeks. Picture courtesy of BPM.

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 7 – In Malaysia, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is one of the most prevalent respiratory viruses and mostly infects children below three years of age.

Notable health care practitioners and key experts recently convened at a media roundtable to raise awareness of this relatively unknown respiratory infection in the country.

The media roundtable titled ‘Taking a Closer Look at RSV’ was organised by the Pertubuhan Kumpulan Sokongan Ibu Bapa dan Bayi Pramatang Malaysia (BPM), in partnership with the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.

RSV is a highly contagious respiratory infection that affects particularly premature infants or babies younger than six months old who have compromised immune systems, lungs, and heart.

It is a common and contagious virus that infects the nose, throat, and lungs, making it hard to breathe.

RSV generally causes flu-like symptoms, and all babies are at risk. It is the leading cause of hospitalisations in all infants.

Children with congenital heart disease (CHD) and bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) are also at higher risk for RSV as well.

“RSV is a disease that has been around for a long time, yet the number of cases is still high. The actual burden of the disease is not known from the economic impact on the health care system which includes admission costs, utilisation of respiratory supports, as well the economic and social impact on the family of patients.

“Therefore, prevention is very important in addressing the further progression of the disease in the country. 

“The only preventive treatment available in Malaysia is indicated for infants born at 35 weeks of gestation or less and high-risk babies less than two years of age. But with the current prescribing guideline recommendation, the usage is mainly reserved for babies born at 29 weeks or less or are below 1kg at birth, with BPD/CLD which requires oxygen therapy,” said Dr Adli Ali, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and head of clinical immunology at UKM Children’s Specialist Hospital.

“There is a gap that we need to address. There are limitations in the guidelines and budget constraints as we deal with RSV. Some hospitals may vary in their approaches due to varied resource constraints”.

“However, it is important that our guidelines follow the global recommendations to ensure all high-risk infants have access to preventive options and in turn, lessen the severity of the disease,” said Dr Choo Yao Mun, consultant neonatologist and paediatrician at the University of Malaya Medical Centre.

Norazleena Yaha, founder of BPM, shared that there is limited information on diseases such as RSV in Malaysia.

“Given the high prevalence of RSV in Malaysia, the reality is that there is little to no information available. Many parents that I meet through BPM are often caught off guard when their child is diagnosed and rely on us for support and guidance. I believe it is crucial for parents and caregivers to have the right support when dealing with any disease, more so RSV,” she said.

Also speaking at the roundtable was Azrul Abdul Khalib, founder and chief executive officer of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.

“With the varied guidelines on prevention, we need to prioritise and respond with more urgency to RSV which can have a life-long impact. Parents, caregivers and the community at large need to understand the severity of the disease, how it can affect the future of our nation and what can be done to address them immediately,” he said.  

Azrul also highlighted the challenges in the country such as the lack of data and information about the disease that could help policymakers to manage the disease better.

He also called for more streamlined guidelines for RSV prevention and to ensure the channels for parents to seek support and financial aid for their children are made more accessible.

“It was an uphill battle when we found that our child was infected with RSV earlier this year. We struggled to understand the disease and it was discouraging that there was no information available about prevention and funding for high-risk babies. We only came to know about it through BPM, who helped direct us to the right channels,” said Nur Sahana, the mother of an RSV-infected child.

“Our daughter, was initially diagnosed with breathing issues and later, was infected with RSV. In managing her condition, we struggled to make decisions on getting preventive treatment, both financially and emotionally.

“Due to her condition, one of us (parents) had to quit our job to stay home to care for her. Therefore, I urge parents to monitor their babies closely, more so if they are at risk for this sort of disease and look for preventive options,” said Nursyahirah Izzatul, another mother.

There is no cure to combat the RSV virus. However, preventive options are available and can help reduce mortality and save children’s lives. 

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