Health

South America, battered by COVID-19, now winning global vaccination race

Oxygen ran
low in Peru. Gravediggers worked through the night in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Bodies
were stuffed into shipping containers in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Brazil, the
largest country in Latin America, saw its COVID-19 death toll rise to the
second-highest in the world, while Argentina and Peru reported some of the
heaviest death per capita figures anywhere.

But in
recent months, despite patchy health services and lower income levels than in
Europe or the United States, the region has emerged as a surprise winner in the
vaccination race.

South
America is now the most vaccinated region in the world, with 63.3 percent of
the population fully inoculated, according to the Our World in Data project,
which collects official numbers from governments worldwide.

Europe comes
in second with 60.7 percent. In Africa, just 8.8 percent of the population has completed
a full vaccination regimen.

Infection
and death rates have plummeted compared to the middle of the year when Latin
America and the Caribbean accounted for almost half of global deaths and
infections. Now it is Europe where – due to the spread of the Omicron variant –
contagion is rebounding.

Epidemiologists
point to several factors to explain the speedy vaccination drive. But the most
important, they say, has been decades of successful inoculation campaigns that
have created the infrastructure needed to deliver jabs en masse, while
instilling trust among the population.

In Brazil,
successful inoculation drives in the last half century against smallpox,
meningitis, polio and measles means that very few people are opposed to
vaccines, said Paulo Lotufo, an epidemiologist and professor at the University
of Sao Paulo.

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In some
major cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, over 99 percent of the
adult population has received at least one dose, authorities say. Brazilians
commonly claim with pride that the nation has a “cultura de
vacinacao,” or “vaccine culture.”

The same can
be said for several other nations in the region, which have previously launched
expansive inoculation campaigns after traumatic infectious disease outbreaks in
recent decades.

“This
confidence, built up over several years, is based on the benefits of our
extensive vaccination schedule,” said Leda Guzzi, a Buenos Aires-based
infectious disease expert.

Effective
public health messaging has been key, too, said Albert Ko, a professor at the
Yale School of Public Health and a collaborating researcher at Rio de Janeiro’s
Oswaldo Cruz Foundation.

In Brazil,
for instance, a mascot resembling a docile white droplet, known as “Zé
Gotinha,” has been heavily used by health officials to promote the
vaccine, even as President Jair Bolsonaro has himself declined to be jabbed.

Earlier this
year, baile funk star MC Fioti released a viral video with a modified version
of one of his hits in association with the Butantan biomedical institute in Sao
Paulo promoting the vaccine.

STORM CLOUDS
GATHER

The region,
however, is far from out of the woods, particularly as the omicron variant
spreads across the globe.

Even with an
impressive 63.3 percent of the population vaccinated, the region remains below
the threshold that most scientists say is needed to offer mass protection.
Omicron is now raging in much of Europe despite similar levels of inoculation.

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Among
children, vaccination rates also vary dramatically from country to country in
Latin America, with authorities in Mexico and Brazil relatively slow to approve
shots for minors.

Another
potential issue is the vaccines used.

Many
countries, such as Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, relied heavily on Coronavac, a
vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd, particularly in the initial
phase of their vaccination drives.

While the
vaccine is credited with getting jabs into arms quickly, its efficacy is lower
than that of its peers, and at least one initial study has indicated it may not
produce antibodies against the omicron variant. Earlier in December, the World
Health Organisation (WHO) said that recipients of Sinovac – as well as all
other “inactivated” vaccines – should get boosted recommendations-boosters.

Epidemiologists
also say, Omicron may be more adept at dodging the immunity generated by
previous COVID-19 infections. That could be bad news in a region where the
virus ripped through entire neighborhoods in earlier stages of the pandemic.

“Many
people, particularly in vulnerable communities in Brazil, have been
infected,” said Ko, the Yale epidemiologist. “We see this virus
infecting people who had already gotten infected before.”

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