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Brazil’s parents want their children vaccinated against Covid. Bolsonaro has tried to stop it

Manuela had a fever that reached 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), spots all over her skin and a lump that grew out of her throat. Her kidneys did not work for almost two days. "Her heart almost stopped," Basto said.

Manuela recovered from Covid, but the side effects have left a lasting impression on her heart: She now has an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.

"It's so awful. She was a healthy child with no underlying conditions," Basto said.

Manuela survived Covid. But hundreds of other children in Brazil do not.

Between March 2020 and November 2021, 308 children between the ages of 5 and 11 died of Covid-19, according to data from the Ministry of Health.

Pediatrician and infectious disease specialist Marcelo Otsuka told CNN that Covid has killed more children than meningitis and measles in the same period, followed only by deaths from traffic accidents.

Now that a nationwide Covid-19 vaccination campaign for children ages 5-11 is underway, it provides relief to many Brazilian parents like Basto, who say it will give her "peace of mind."

The rollout began on Monday, and with schools back in session from February, many parents are feeling the same way.

Families arrive at a Covid-19 vaccination center in Volta Redonda, Brazil, on Monday.

A nationwide survey from the Datafolha Institute released on Monday revealed that 79% of respondents support vaccination of children in that age group. (The survey was conducted by telephone on 12 and 13 January among 2,023 people aged 16 and over.)

But the vaccine could not come fast enough for some parents who have been waiting almost a month to take their children to get the injection.

The reason? Mainly Brazil's own president Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro, who says he is unvaccinated, has been widely criticized at home and abroad for downplaying the severity of the virus, including deterring others from being vaccinated, despite Brazil battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. .

The president's opposition to childhood vaccination is the latest part of this crusade.

On December 16, Brazil's regulatory agency Anvisa turned on the green Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine for children. That same day, Bolsonaro called the decision "incredible" and threatened to release the names of Anvisa employees involved in the decision.

Congresswoman Bia Kicis, a loyal Bolsonaro supporter who has also discredited child vaccinations on social media, later revealed these names to a WhatsApp group of Bolsonaro supporters. Kicis justified her actions, saying she believed the documents were public in a hearing on the issue earlier this month.

Congresswoman Bia Kici speaks at a Bolsonaro meeting in August last year.

And a few days before the rollout began, Bolsonaro erroneously claimed in an interview with TV Nova Nordeste that no children have died of Covid, before later in the same interview saying that "some children must be dead, but they must have one or other comorbidity. "

Perhaps these words come as no surprise: In June last year, while speaking at an event, a unmasked Bolsonaro asked a child to remove his mask and also took off another child's mask.

His actions are a slap in the face to the hundreds of parents who are still mourning the loss of their children - and to Manuela's mother, Basto, who feared the worst.
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Bolsonaro has also said he does not want to vaccinate his 11-year-old daughter, saying "children have not been dying in a way that justifies a vaccine."

But "these vaccines offer really good protection, with even greater protection for children than for adults, and with excellent safety," said pediatrician and infectious disease expert Dr. Marcelo Otsuka to CNN.

"All studies suggest that vaccines are safe and have very good efficacy for the age group of 5-11," he said.

Otsuka quoted data from the United States, saying: "When analyzing data from the 7 million doses given in the United States to this age group, no side effects were reported that should cause us concern."

But Bolsonaro and his administration are largely not deterred by scientific evidence, where their rhetoric instead delays the rollout.

A 'paradox'

Esther Solano, professor of international relations at the University of Sao Paulo, told CNN that Bolsonaro's messages about vaccines for children are part of his long-term political strategy.

When the rollout was approved, Solano said it presented a "paradox" to the Brazilian leader, who has denied the effectiveness of vaccines.

"He has to follow his strategy as he can not change the speech and adopt a favorable one for the children," Solano said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro talks about the rollout of the vaccine in Brasilia in March last year.

Bolsonaro's anti-vaccine rhetoric is not necessarily aimed at preventing Brazilian children from getting shot, Solano added, but rather part of his long-running campaign to recruit and play up to his far-right base ahead of the October 2022 election.

"Bolsonaro is mobilizing its radical supporters to think about the next election," Solano said.

Bolsonaro and Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga also suggested a period of public consultation before they rolled out the shots and that parents present a doctor’s prescription to get their children vaccinated.

Although these proposals were not adopted - it stopped the rollout.

Brazil is now starting the process much later than many other Latin American countries - including Cuba, Chile and Argentina, whose childhood vaccine campaigns have been running for several months.
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And Queiroga has not stopped its attempts to undermine their effectiveness. This week, he erroneously claimed that thousands of people had died from side effects caused by the vaccines, which directly contradicts his government's own data. He later said that these comments were taken out of context by the media.

It's hard to know what Bolsonaro and his allies will benefit from resisting child vaccination, as public support largely supports them - especially in an election year where the cards can be stacked against him.

Political scientist Camila Rocha told CNN that Bolsonaro's "goal is to unite and mobilize its core supporters (about 20% of voters) around a new controversy - as well as to divert attention from other topics that may be unpleasant."

For Bolsonaro's supporters, the child vaccination issue will not affect their support, Rocha said.

"It could have negative consequences among people who voted for Bolsonaro and are disappointed with his governments and his views during the pandemic - especially women and young people," she added.

For Basto, Bolsonaro lost his confidence long ago. She has seen what Covid has done to the country and her child.

"He's a crazy denier, what can you say? It's unbelievable that a president would have such views," she said.

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