Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign stumbles as Bolsonaro’s misinformation campaign persists

“There were a lot of young people in the last wave who were getting worse too fast. We had patients between the ages of 33 and 40 in intensive care. And we had a greater limitation of medical supplies. Every day we were running out of certain gender,” said Dr. Luan Matos de Menezes, intensive care physician at Delfina Aziz Hospital in the regional capital of Manaus.

Today is like déjà vu.

As the Omicron variant coronavirus continues to spread across the country at a rapid pace, the hospital’s intensive care unit is once again overwhelmed.

But one thing is different, says Menezes. This time, he feels that many of these patients are making a choice.

Although more than 86% of Brazil’s adult population is now fully immunized, uptake of boosters has been slow, with lower rates at younger ages. Some infectious disease experts attribute this to the lingering effects of a disinformation campaign in which the country’s leaders played a part. Without this protection, these Brazilians were vulnerable to the latest wave of Omicron infections that swept the country.

Menezes, who has worked at the hospital throughout the pandemic, says it’s harder to have sympathy for these Covid patients. Indeed, the majority of people who now end up in intensive care are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated – even though vaccines have been available to them for months.

More than 80% of people hospitalized with Covid-19 in four Brazilian regional capitals – Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Manaus and Brasilia – are either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, according to local government figures.

And in Manaus, where Menezes works, nine out of 10 people admitted to hospital are not fully vaccinated. “These are the people who chose not to vaccinate,” Menezes said.

Menezes also told CNN that many unvaccinated patients, who are often already seriously ill when they arrive at the hospital, request the vaccine when they are admitted.

Parents in Brazil want their children to be vaccinated against Covid.  Bolsonaro tried to stop him

But by then it is too late.

Brazil already has nearly 640,000 deaths from the pandemic – the second highest national toll in the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

And this year, the country continues to report record daily Covid-19 cases and deaths. On February 3, the number of daily deaths exceeded 1,000 for the first time since August 2021, according to data from the Ministry of Health.

“Those of us on the front lines of Covid see a lot of people dying because they didn’t vaccinate,” said Menezes, who attributes this vaccine hesitancy to “a lot of misinformation being spread” about efficacy. and vaccine safety.

Many public health officials are watching Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks in Brasilia in November 2021.

Bolsonaro, who says he is unvaccinated, has been widely criticized at home and abroad for downplaying the severity of the virus, with a long-running campaign to discredit vaccines under his leadership.

Despite this, many Brazilians have embraced the vaccine.

But hesitation persists, which is now reflected in recall rates and slow adoption rates in younger age groups.

So far, only 23% of Brazilians aged 12 and over have received their booster dose, compared to 94% who have received at least one dose.

In younger age groups, these rates drop even lower. Only 10% of children aged 5 to 11 have been vaccinated. They have the right to do so since January 17. But some Bolsonaro allies seem poised to derail that campaign.

On January 21, Marcelo Queiroga, Brazilian Minister of Health, and Damares Alves, Minister of Women and Family, visited a family in the state of Sao Paulo whose child had died of cardiac arrest a few hours after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine in what some say is an attempt to discredit the vaccine. Sao Paulo’s state health secretary said the child suffered from a rare disease and his death was not linked to the vaccine.

That same week, Queiroga had falsely claimed that thousands of people had died from adverse reactions caused by vaccines – directly contradicting his government’s own data. He later said those comments were taken out of context by the media.

But those comments were already in the public domain.

Bolsonaro supporters demonstrate against Covid-19 vaccines outside the headquarters of the Pan American Health Organization in Brasilia on January 4.

Esther Solano, a professor of international relations at the University of Sao Paulo, told CNN officials are intentionally creating confusion around vaccines.

“People feel very lost, they don’t know what’s true and what’s not. It’s a strategy of confusion that greatly increases people’s mistrust of institutions and the press about what’s going on. is happening,” Solano said.

Dr. Raquel Stucchi, an infectious disease expert and professor at Unicamp University, told CNN that Bolsonaro’s government has issued “repeated messages questioning the efficacy and safety” of Covid-19 vaccines, including Bolsonaro himself, who raised the question of why “you have to take three doses if before two were enough.”

Vaccine boosters and series of doses in vaccines are not unusual. Many vaccines require multiple doses to achieve full immunity, including the polio vaccine, which requires four doses, or the hepatitis vaccine, which requires three. These vaccines are a series, which means that the second, third or fourth doses are necessary to obtain full protection.

Dr. Isabella Ballalai, a pediatrician and vice president of the Brazilian Vaccination Society, told CNN that Brazilian authorities should focus on positive messages about vaccines — and make it clear that those who are hospitalized are largely unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

Sarah Santos Costa receives a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine on January 17, 2022, as part of the first group of children under 12 to be vaccinated.

Ballalai cited strong public health messaging in the UK and the US as an example. Brazil’s public health messaging, she said, has been particularly weak, with vaccine rhetoric from Bolsonaro and his health minister only compounding the problem.

As Omicron began to sweep across the country, Bolsonaro claimed he “didn’t kill anyone”.

Such language — that Omicron is less harmful — could contribute to people deciding not to get their booster doses, Stucchi said.

Although studies have concluded that the Omicron variant is less likely to cause serious illness and hospitalization than the Delta variant, the problem, she said, is that people don’t understand the idea that vaccines themselves play a role in ensuring that infections do not turn into more serious cases.

“People assume they don’t need to worry about vaccination anymore. (But) what we do know is that Omicron is lighter due to vaccination,” she said.

Ballalai urges the country’s leaders to send clear and factual messages. This is the only way to stop the cycle, she said, and protect future generations.

“If you don’t talk about it, Brazilians don’t see the risk. We no longer have the natural demand that we had in the 90s, when everyone was looking for a vaccine, so as not to let their children die”, she added. noted.


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