BRASILIA from Brazil
As world leaders rely on public health specialists to inform their decisions about whether and how to immunize children against the coronavirus, the Brazilian government is seeking advice from the public online.
In recent weeks, President Jair Bolsonaro has taken a stand against vaccinating children aged 5 to 11, and his administration has taken the unusual step of creating a platform that could validate a position widely opposed by experts. Since his government unveiled its online questionnaire on the issue on Dec. 23, supporters of the president have engaged heavily in messaging apps trying to pressure parents to change the results.
A widely shared article Wednesday on the Telegram group ‘Bolsonaro Army’, which has around 37,000 members, said the vaccine is experimental and suggested that receiving injections could be more harmful than being infected, although several studies have shown that the opposite is true. It also included a link to the government investigation, which others were posting with instructions to pass on to friends and family.
The rally for the resistance resembles the online behavior seen earlier this month, which catapulted Bolsonaro to the top of TIME magazine’s reader poll for Person of the Year, David Nemer, an expert on Brazilian far-right groups on messaging apps, told The Associated Press. Bolsonaro garnered about a quarter of the more than 9 million votes, nearly triple that of the finalist, former US President Donald Trump. Instead, the magazine’s editors chose Elon Musk as Personality of the Year 2021.
This time around, however, the online efforts are aimed at something far more important than bestowing an honorary title on the president. The survey, which ends Jan. 2, is expected to shape immunization policy in Latin America’s most populous country, home to 20 million children aged 5 to 11. Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said they would soon be eligible for vaccination, but the survey results will help determine guidelines, especially whether injections can only be given with parental consent and a medical prescription.
“It is a tool of democracy, it widens the discussion on the subject and it will make it easier for parents to take their children to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” Queiroga said on Wednesday.
Health experts, for their part, are appalled. Health secretariats in some Brazilian states have already pledged to ignore health ministry guidelines on childhood immunizations if they are based on public consultation. Gonzalo Vecina, founder and director of the Brazilian health regulator between 1999 and 2003, says the public consultation on vaccines is “unprecedented”.
“Bolsonaro is against the vaccine and his employee, the Minister of Health, believes that health is a matter of public opinion. It is a fallacious and absurd approach, ”Vecina told the AP. “If only the deniers send their opinion during the public consultation, will the government say that the vaccine should not be used?
Denial from above in Brazil is a bit of deja vu. Even as COVID-19 exploded, bringing the country’s death toll to second in the world, Bolsonaro has spent months casting doubt on vaccines and stubbornly refusing to be vaccinated. He cited the fact that he contracted the coronavirus in 2020 to claim, falsely, that he is already immune, and consistently characterizes vaccination as a matter of personal choice rather than a means of ensuring the common good.
So when Brazil’s health regulator cleared Pfizer’s vaccine for use in children on December 16, Bolsonaro was stunned.
“Children are something very serious,” he said the same evening on his weekly show live on social networks. “We don’t know the possible negative future effects. It’s amazing – I’m sorry – what the agency has done. Incredible.”
A study released Thursday by U.S. health officials confirmed that serious side effects from the Pfizer vaccine in children aged 5 to 11 are rare. The results were based on approximately 8 million doses given to young people in this age group.
Bolsonaro added that he would name and expose the officials who issued the approval, prompting a union representing workers at health agencies to voice concern about online abuse or even physical attacks.
Despite strong support from his base, Bolsonaro’s anti-vaccine stance has not gained as much traction in Brazil – which has a proud history of vaccination campaigns – as in the United States. More than two-thirds of Brazilians are completely vaccinated, compared to 63% in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins University Immunization Tracking System, although American children have been eligible for vaccines since early November.
In neighboring Argentina, the government has allowed children 12 and over to be vaccinated since August, and more recently has started vaccinating children as young as 3. In the face of criticism that followed, the country’s health ministry cited the recommendation of the national association. pediatricians. In Chile, two-thirds of children aged 3 to 17 have already received their two vaccines, after the national health regulator analyzed a study on the vaccination of 100 million children.
At this time, Mexico does not vaccinate children except those 12 years of age or older with diseases that put them at greater risk. Mexico’s key man for the pandemic, Hugo López-Gatell, said on Tuesday that the World Health Organization did not recommend immunizing children aged 5 to 11 and that countries with sufficient immunization coverage , like Mexico, should not immunize children until developing countries with limited coverage can increase their adult immunization rates.
In Brazil, Mauro Paulino, chief executive of prominent pollster Datafolha, said that one problem with the Bolsonaro government’s investigation is the way the questions are worded, repeatedly asking respondents: “Are you d ‘okay that …? Such a failure to present questions in a neutral way can lead to answers.
“Datafolha always gives the two possible alternatives: whether the respondent agrees or disagrees with the statement,” he said. “Both sides of the question are necessary.”
Bolsonaro told supporters on Tuesday that the pressure to vaccinate children was coming from the “vaccine lobby” – a veiled reference to drug companies. The next day, many Bolsonaro supporters shared a message from the Telegram group “Doctors for life”, which has more than 60,000 subscribers and often echoes the president’s non-scientific advice on COVID-19.
A Telegram article with over 200,000 shares said that no child should be a guinea pig for the pharmaceutical industry. Tens of millions of doses have been administered to children worldwide, with rare serious side effects. As few children die from COVID-19, vaccinating them can minimize the spread of the virus in society.
Bolsonaro also said this week that he would not allow his 11-year-old daughter to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, his political wife and sons have received their shots, along with at least 16 of his 22 ministers, including Health Minister Queiroga.
Politicians from the party Bolsonaro joined to run in the 2022 election have pleaded not only for vaccination, but also to require proof of vaccination to enter certain places – another alleged violation of personal freedoms that Bolsonaro opposes .
His chaotic handling of the pandemic since its onset has come under heavy criticism, and a Senate commission of inquiry recommended that it face criminal charges.
But the president and his staunch Telegram and WhatsApp supporters are not backing down. Many interpreted her comments regarding her daughter in particular as a directive to reject childhood immunizations.
“There are a lot of messages about the dangers of vaccines, studies that are not true,” said Nemer, expert on far-right groups and assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. . “They bring a lot of misinformation about childhood immunizations to motivate the grassroots.”
AP Savarese journalists reported from Sao Paulo and Silva de Sousa from Rio de Janeiro. Eva Vergara has contributed from Santiago, Chile, Debora Rey from Buenos Aires and Chris Sherman from Mexico.