BRASILIA (AP) – With executives from around the world relying on public health specialists to make decisions about whether and how children should be vaccinated against COVID-19, the Brazilian government is soliciting public opinion through an online survey .
In recent weeks, President Jair Bolsonaro has spoken out against vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11, and his government has taken the unusual step of creating a platform that could confirm a stance disapproved by experts. Since his government released its online questionnaire on December 23rd, supporters of the president have been very active in messaging apps to pressure parents to influence the results.
A widespread post on Wednesday on Telegram’s Bolsonaro Army group, which has around 37,000 members, said the vaccine was experimental and suggested that its ingestion could be more harmful than infection, although several studies have shown the opposite . It also included a link to the government survey that other people posted along with instructions on how to forward it to friends and family.
The anti-vaccination campaign is similar to the online behavior seen earlier this month that catapulted Bolsonaro to the top of TIME magazine’s readers’ poll for Person of the Year, David Nemer, an expert, told Associated Press Applications. Bolsonaro received about a quarter of the more than 9 million votes, almost three times that of runner-up, former US President Donald Trump. The magazine’s editors voted Elon Musk Person of the Year 2021.
This time around, however, the online efforts are aimed at something far more significant than paying homage to the president. The poll, which ends January 2, aims to define vaccination policy in the most populous country in Latin America, home to 20 million children aged 5-11. Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga has announced that they will be able to be vaccinated soon, but the results of the survey will help set guidelines, including whether to give vaccines only with parental consent and a doctor’s recommendation.
“This is an instrument of democracy, it broadens the discussion on the subject and will give parents more security so that they can get their children to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” Queiroga said on Wednesday.
For their part, health experts are stunned. Some health ministries in Brazilian states have already committed to ignoring federal health ministry guidelines on vaccination in children based on public consultations. Gonzalo Vecina, founder and director of the Brazilian Health Authority between 1999 and 2003, says the public consultation on vaccines is “unprecedented”.
“Bolsonaro is against the vaccine and his associate, the Minister of Health, believes that health is a matter of public opinion. It’s a wrong and pointless approach, ”Vecina told the AP. “If only the deniers give their opinion in the public consultation, will the government say that the vaccine does not have to be used?”
Denial by the top in Brazil has something of déjà vu about it. When COVID-19 exploded, bringing the country’s death toll to the second highest in the world, Bolsonaro spent months voicing doubts about vaccines and adamantly refusing to get vaccinated. Quoting the fact that he contracted the coronavirus in 2020 to falsely claim he is already immune, he routinely refers to vaccination as a personal choice rather than a means of safeguarding the common good.
When the Brazilian health authority approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for children on December 16, Bolsonaro was stunned.
“Children are something very serious,” he said on his weekly live broadcast on social media that same evening. “We don’t know anything about the possible future side effects. It’s amazing – sorry – what the agency did. Unbelievable”.
A study published Thursday by U.S. health officials confirmed that serious side effects from the Pfizer vaccine are rare in children ages 5-11. The results were based on approximately 8 million doses given to children in this age group.
Bolsonaro added that he would name and expose the officials who granted the permit, leading a union representing health officials to voice concerns about online verbal or even physical attacks.
Despite ardent support from its ranks, Bolsonaro’s anti-vaccination stance is not as widespread in Brazil – which has a proud history of vaccination campaigns – as it is in the United States. According to the Johns Hopkins University vaccination protocol, more than two-thirds of Brazilians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with 63% in the United States, although American children have been eligible for vaccines since the early 1990s.
In neighboring Argentina, the government has allowed children aged 12 and over to be vaccinated since August and recently started using the vaccine in children aged 3 and over. In view of the criticism of the decision, the national health ministry cited the recommendation of the national association of paediatricians. In Chile, two-thirds of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have already received both vaccines after the country’s health authority analyzed a vaccination study involving 100 million children.
Mexico does not currently vaccinate children, with the exception of children 12 years and older who have diseases that put them at higher risk. The man who is supposed to lead the country’s response to the pandemic, Hugo López-Gatell, said Tuesday that the World Health Organization has not recommended vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11 and that countries with full vaccine coverage, Like Mexico, children should not vaccinate until developing countries with limited immunization coverage can increase their vaccination rates among the adult population.
In Brazil, Mauro Paulino, CEO of the leading polling company Datafolha, said a problem with the Bolsonaro government’s survey was the way the questions were phrased and repeatedly asked respondents, “Do you agree with what? ..? ”This lack of neutral presentation of the questions can lead to answers.
“Datafolha always gives the two possible alternatives: whether the respondent agrees with the statement or not,” he said. “Both sides of the question are necessary.”
Bolsonaro told supporters Tuesday that pressures to vaccinate children came from “vaccine lobbying,” a disguised reference to drug companies. Many Bolsonaro supporters shared a post the next day from the Telegram group “Doctors for Life”, which has more than 60,000 followers and often repeats the unscientific advice of the president on COVID-19.
A Telegram post shared more than 200,000 times said that no child should be a guinea pig for the pharmaceutical industry. Ten million doses have been given to children around the world with very serious side effects. Although few children die from COVID-19, vaccination can minimize the spread of the virus in society.
Bolsonaro also said this week that he will not have his 11-year-old daughter vaccinated. Meanwhile, his wife and sons-in-law have received their vaccinations, along with at least 16 of his 22 ministers, including Health Minister Queiroga.
Politicians of the party Bolsonaro joined to be re-elected in 2022 have defended not only vaccination but also demands for proof of vaccination for entering certain places, another alleged violation of personal freedoms that Bolsonaro opposes.
His chaotic management of the pandemic since its inception has been heavily criticized, and a Senate investigative committee recommended that criminal charges be brought up against it.
But the president and his loyal followers on Telegram and WhatsApp are not giving in. Many interpreted the comments on their daughter as an instruction to refuse to vaccinate children.
“There are many messages about the dangers of vaccines, studies that are not true,” said Nemer, an expert on far-right groups and associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “They provide a lot of misinformation about vaccinating children to motivate the grassroots.”
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo and Silva de Sousa from Rio de Janeiro. The Associated Press journalist Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; Débora Rey in Buenos Aires and Chris Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.