Should children be vaccinated? Brazil relies on online surveys

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FILE – A health worker injects the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Solidary Hands Shelter for the homeless in the slum area of ​​Ceilandia, Brasilia, Brazil, June 29, 2021. The Brazilian government has started an online public survey on June 24, 2021. December to inform their decisions on whether and how children should be vaccinated against the coronavirus. (AP Photo / Eraldo Peres, file)

AP

With leaders around the world relying on public health specialists to make their decisions about whether and how children should be vaccinated against the coronavirus, the Brazilian government is seeking advice from the online public.

In the past few weeks, President Jair Bolsonaro has staked a position against immunizing 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 largely disapproved by experts. Since his government unveiled its online questionnaire on the issue on Dec. 23, the president’s backers have been heavily involved in messaging apps that seek to pressure parents to change the results.

A widespread post Wednesday on Telegram group “Bolsonaro Army”, which has about 37,000 members, said the vaccine was experimental and suggested that receiving injections could be more harmful than infection, despite several studies to the contrary have proven. 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 resistance rally resembles the online behavior observed earlier this month that catapulted Bolsonaro to the top in TIME magazine’s reader poll for Person of the Year, David Nemer, an expert on Brazil’s far-right messaging apps group, told The Associated Press. Bolsonaro received about a quarter of the more than 9 million votes – almost three times that of runner-up, former US President Donald Trump. Instead, the editors of the magazine voted Elon Musk for Person of the Year 2021.

This time around, however, the online efforts are aimed at something far more significant than giving a tribute to the president. The poll, which ends January 2, is set to shape vaccination policy in Latin America’s most populous nation of 20 million children aged 5 to 11. Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga has announced that they will soon be eligible for vaccination, but the survey results will help set guidelines, including whether or not syringes can only be given with parental consent and a doctor’s prescription.

“This is an instrument of democracy, it broadens the discussion on the issue and it will give parents more relief so that they can take their children with them to immunize against COVID-19,” Queiroga said on Wednesday.

Health experts, for their part, are stunned. The health secretariats of some Brazilian states have already committed to ignoring any guidelines from the Ministry of Health on vaccinating children if they are based on the public consultation. 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 nonsensical approach, ”Vecina told the AP. “If only the deniers give their opinion in the public consultation, will the government say the vaccine does not have to be used?”

Denial from the top in Brazil is a little déjà vu. Even as COVID-19 exploded, driving the country’s death toll to the second highest in the world, Bolsonaro spent months sowing doubts about vaccines and adamantly refusing to get an injection. Quoting the fact that he contracted the coronavirus in 2020 to falsely claim he is already immune, he routinely characterizes vaccination as a matter of personal choice rather than a means of safeguarding the common good.

When the Brazilian health authority approved the use of Pfizer’s shot on children on December 16, Bolsonaro was stunned.

“Children are something very serious,” he said that evening in his weekly live broadcast on social media. “We don’t know anything about possible negative effects in the future. It’s amazing – I’m 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 adolescents in this age group.

Bolsonaro added that he would name and expose the officials who gave the approval, leading a union representing health officials to raise concerns about online abuse or even physical assault.

Despite ardent support at its base, Bolsonaro’s anti-vaccine stance in Brazil – which has a proud history of vaccination campaigns – has not received as much resonance as it does in the US.More than two-thirds of Brazilians are fully vaccinated, compared with 63% in the US According to the Johns Hopkins University vaccination tracker, although American children have been eligible for vaccinations since early November.

In neighboring Argentina, the government has allowed children from the age of 12 to be vaccinated since August, and recently also allows children to be vaccinated from the age of 3. In view of the subsequent criticism, the state’s health ministry cited the recommendation of the state association of paediatricians. In Chile, two-thirds of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have already received both vaccinations after the country’s health authority analyzed a vaccination study of 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. Mexico’s head of the pandemic, Hugo López-Gatell, said Tuesday the World Health Organization has not recommended vaccinating children ages 5-11 and that countries with adequate vaccination coverage, like Mexico, do not vaccinate children until they are in developing countries with limited immunization coverage Vaccinators should be able to increase their vaccination rates for adults.

In Brazil, Mauro Paulino, director general of the prominent polling institute Datafolha, said a problem with the Bolsonaro government’s survey was the way the questions were phrased and repeatedly asked respondents, “Do you agree …?” Presenting questions neutrally can lead to answers.

“Datafolha always gives the two possible alternatives: whether or not the respondent agrees with the statement,” he said. “Both sides of the question are necessary.”

Bolsonaro told supporters on Tuesday that pressure to vaccinate children was coming from the “vaccine lobby” – a disguised reference to drug companies. Many Bolsonaro supporters shared a post the next day from Telegram’s Doctors For Life group, which has more than 60,000 followers and often repeats the president’s unscientific COVID-19 advice.

A Telegram post with more than 200,000 shares said no child should be a guinea pig for the pharmaceutical industry. Ten million doses have been given to children around the world with rare 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 he would not allow his 11-year-old daughter to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, his wife and sons of politicians received their shots, along with at least 16 of his 22 ministers – including Health Minister Queiroga.

Politicians of the party, which Bolsonaro joined to run for re-election in 2022, have come out not only in favor of vaccinations, but also for evidence of vaccination to enter certain places – another alleged violation of personal freedoms against which they are opposed Bolsonaro turns.

His chaotic management of the pandemic since it began has been sharply criticized and a Senate investigative committee recommended that he face criminal charges.

But the president and his die-hard supporters at Telegram and WhatsApp are not giving in. Many interpreted his statements, especially about his 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 assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “They bring a lot of disinformation about vaccinating children to keep the grassroots motivated.”

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AP journalists Savarese reported from Sao Paulo and Silva de Sousa from Rio de Janeiro. Eva Vergara from Santiago, Chile, Debora Rey from Buenos Aires and Chris Sherman from Mexico City.

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