Sunday, January 16, 2022

After a slow start, vaccination rates in some Asian countries are now skyrocketing.

MONEY STUMP, Cambodia (AP) – When Cambodia rolled out the COVID-19 vaccine, whole streets lined up with people keeping their shoes on to save their seats as they sheltered from the sun. But three months after the start of the campaign, only 11% of the population received at least one dose. In much richer Japan, it took two weeks longer to reach this level.

Vaccination rates in both countries are now among the best in the world. These are two of several countries in the Asia-Pacific region that slowly began their immunization campaigns but have since overtaken the United States and many countries in Europe.

High-performing countries include both richer and poorer countries, some with larger populations and some with smaller. But they all have experience with infectious diseases like SARS and strong vaccine procurement programs, many of whom knew how to spread their risk by placing orders with multiple manufacturers.

Most of them started vaccinations relatively late due to complacency amid low infection rates, supply problems and other factors. But by the time they did, the rise in death tolls in the United States, Britain and India helped convince even skeptics to accept the effort.

“I was really worried, but at the moment we live under the threat of COVID-19. We have no choice but to get vaccinated, ”said Rath Sreimom, who rushed to vaccinate her daughter, 5-year-old Nut Nira, after Cambodia opened its program to her age group this month.

Cambodia was one of the first countries in the region to launch its vaccination program on February 10 – still two months after the US and UK began their vaccination program. As in other countries in the region, adoption was slow, and by early May, when the delta variant began to spread rapidly, only 11% of its 16 million people had at least their first chance, according to Our World in Data. This is roughly half the rate achieved in the United States over the same time period, and a third in the UK.

Cambodia is now 78% fully vaccinated, up from 58% in the United States. She is now offering revaccination and is considering expanding her program to 3- and 4-year-olds.

The country has seen strong demand for the vaccine since its inception, with the spread to the general public in April coinciding with a massive spike in cases in India, from which eerie images of body bonfires emerged outside the crowded crematoria.

Prime Minister Hun Sen used his close ties to Beijing to procure about 37 million doses from China, some of which were donated. He said last week that Cambodia’s “vaccination victory” could not have happened without them. The country has also received major donations from the US, Japan, UK and the international COVAX program.

However, it took a while to get enough supplies, and many countries in the region that started their programs later faced even greater difficulties, especially when the region’s main producer, India, suspended vaccine exports during the spring spike.

“To be sure, securing supplies was really important for countries that have done particularly well,” said John Fleming, head of the Red Cross’s Asia-Pacific Health Division. “Then there is the side of creating demand – obviously, this is about getting support from the population, as well as working with marginalized groups.”

At the onset of the pandemic, many Asian countries introduced strict isolation and travel regulations that have largely contained the spread of the virus. When vaccines were introduced everywhere, these low rates sometimes worked against them, giving some people the impression that it was not urgent to get vaccinated.

But when the dangerous variant of the delta began to spread throughout the region, the number of cases increased, prompting people to register.

Some countries, such as Malaysia, have made extra efforts to ensure that the vaccine is available to even the most difficult to reach populations. He turned to the Red Cross for help to vaccinate people living in the country illegally and other groups who may have been afraid to show up for government-sponsored vaccinations.

“We made the vaccine available to everyone without asking questions,” said Professor Sazali Abu Bakar, director of the Center for Tropical Infectious Diseases and Research Education.

As with Cambodia and Japan, Malaysia moved forward in the first three months, giving the first dose less than 5% of its 33 million people during that time, according to Our World in Data.

However, as the number of cases skyrocketed, Malaysia purchased more doses and opened hundreds of vaccination centers, including megahabs, capable of delivering up to 10,000 vaccinations per day. Currently, 76% of the population is fully vaccinated in the country.

To date, about a dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region have vaccinated more than 70% of their population or are on the cusp of vaccination, including Australia, China, Japan and Bhutan. In Singapore, 92% are fully vaccinated.

However, some Asian countries continued to struggle. In October, India celebrated the introduction of the billionth dose of COVID-19 vaccine, but with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, this means a 29% fully vaccinated rate. Indonesia started earlier than most, but also stumbled, largely due to the challenge of expanding its campaign to the thousands of islands that make up its archipelago.

Japan’s vaccination program was notoriously slow – progressing slowly as the world wondered if it could host the Summer Olympics. It didn’t start until mid-February because it required additional clinical testing in Japanese before using the vaccines – a move widely criticized as unnecessary. Also initially there were problems with supplies.

But then everything turned around the corner. Then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recruited military medical personnel to run mass vaccination centers in Tokyo and Osaka and broke laws by allowing dentists, paramedics and laboratory technicians to inject with doctors and nurses.

The number of daily doses of the vaccine rose to about 1.5 million in July, and the country is now fully infected by about 76%. Much of Japan’s success comes from public reaction, according to Makoto Shimoaraiso, a senior official in charge of fighting COVID-19 in the country.

Many in Japan are generally skeptical of vaccines, but after the death toll skyrocketed around the world, this has not become a problem.

In fact, retired Kiyoshi Goto is already clamoring for his next chance, as he is wary of the growing number of cases in Europe.

“I want to get a booster shot because our antibody levels are going down,” said the 75-year-old man.

In Phnom Penh, Nut Nira was happy to receive it first, saying that she used to be afraid of COVID-19, but no more.

“When I got the vaccine, I felt a little pain,” said a young girl at a vaccination center on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, softly. “But I didn’t cry.”


The rise was reported from Bangkok. Associated Press correspondents Kim Dong Hyun in Seoul, South Korea; Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Mari Yamaguchi from Tokyo contributed to this report.


Stay tuned for AP coverage of the pandemic at

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