Costa Rica has imposed Covid-19 vaccines for children. But not everyone is on board

Inside Saint Vincent de Paul Hospital in Costa Rica’s Heredia province, not far from the capital San José, the row – over the country’s mandate over the Covid-19 vaccine – erupted last week, resulting in the arrest of seven people.

But that fight proved more consequential than just those involved: the incident forced authorities to temporarily close the doors of the hospital, marking a dark moment in the country’s fight against the pandemic and highlighting the debate around its compulsory vaccination policy.

Last November, Costa Rica became the first country in the world to make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory for minors, with all children aged 5 and over required to be vaccinated, unless medically exempt.

More than 91% of people aged 12 to 19 have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, according to the latest government data, but vaccinations for young children have stalled – with only 12% of children aged 5 to 11 to date having received a dose.

A survey published by the Pan American Health Organization in October found that nearly 94% of the Costa Rican population considers it “important for everyone to get vaccinated against Covid-19”. In the same survey, 89% of parents said they would have their children aged 12 or younger vaccinated.
And many seem to agree with the mandate.
A study by the University of Costa Rica’s School of Statistics found that 75% of respondents said they supported the vaccination mandate for people 18 and older, with support decreasing with groups of age ; 69% of people agreed with a vaccination mandate for 12-17 year olds, while 59% favored the measure for children aged 5-12.

Yet a small, vocal group of parents — like those who surrounded the hospital last week — oppose the measure, catapulting the mandatory vaccine debate onto the floors of Congress.

The attack in Heredia unfolded after a six-year-old boy was admitted to hospital with a respiratory problem, according to hospital director Priscila Balmaceda Chaves. When the attending physician learned that the child was not vaccinated, he told the child’s father that he should do so. According to the mandate, a child can be vaccinated even if their parents do not consent, but this process is not instantaneous, according to public health expert Roman Macaya Hayes, who heads the Costa Social Security Institute. Ric.

Angered that his child could be vaccinated without his permission, the father – along with six others – came down to arrest him, officials say. That’s when the fight broke out.

Congresswoman Silvia Hernández Sánchez called the group “a mob irritated by madness”, whose violent actions “put staff and patients at risk”, with Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Security asking the courts ” to apply the full severity of the law”.

Hayes told CNN that protecting a child’s health is equivalent to preventing child abuse, because the outcome is the same: ensuring the well-being of minors.

He explained that compulsory vaccination is supported by legislation, including laws that support the “constitutional right to life and, therefore, to health.”

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“The collective good supersedes the rights of the individual,” Hayes said.

Not all lawmakers agree, though they too seem to be in the minority.

One of those most vocal opponents is independent lawmaker Erick Rodríguez Steller, who called the mandate “nonsense,” saying it leaves Costa Rica under a “sanitary dictatorship.”

While Rodríguez says he does not condone the violence that took place at Heredia Hospital, he said the father had every right to prevent his child from getting vaccinated.

Rodríguez voiced his opposition to the mandate in congress last week, saying “the state shouldn’t decide how we raise our children.”

He later told CNN he had been vaccinated, believed in science and was not an ‘anti-vaxxer’ – even though local media allege the father of the boy at the center of the controversy is.

Rodríguez said he thinks there isn’t enough information about the risks of vaccines for children – and that he and others who oppose the mandate just want to find out the “truth” about the risks. potential risks.

Studies around the world have concluded that Covid-19 vaccines are safe for children, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending them for children aged 5 and over.

And in Latin America, Cuba, Chile and Argentina have been running successful childhood vaccination campaigns for months.

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Yet governments around the world have largely avoided mandatory vaccinations, opting instead for incentives to motivate people to get vaccinated.

Even in authoritarian states, including China – where vaccines are approved for children from age 3 – they are not mandatory. However, this wind could turn in Europe. On Friday, Austria became the first European country to impose a vaccination mandate on its adult population.

Some say the mandates are testing the line between public health and civil liberties, adding to tensions between those who are vaccinated and those who are not.

Rodríguez, the independent lawmaker, said he doesn’t completely rule out supporting a term, but must have congressional consensus.

“When it comes to restricting rights and freedoms, it has to go through the Legislative Assembly, and here the health authorities have ignored us,” he said.

Hayes insists that the mandate is not to restrict freedoms, but to ensure the public good, especially when there is a vaccine that has been shown to be safe and effective around the world.

“Let’s keep alive the Costa Rican tradition of believing in vaccines, believing in science, and believing in doctors who treat patients in their best interests, because these vaccines save lives,” he said.

Djenane Villanueva from San José, Costa Rica contributed to this report.


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