BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) -- Fifteen Brazilian children received COVID-19 vaccines Friday, marking the start of an effort that was delayed several weeks by the federal government's reluctance to endorse the immunization of children.
The country's health regulator issued approval on Dec. 16 for the administration of the Pfizer shot to children ages 5-11. The decision incensed Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who has since complained about vaccinating children, saying he won't let his 11-year-old daughter get shots and warning of possible side effects.
A study released by U.S. health authorities in late December determined serious side effects of the Pfizer vaccine in 5-11 year olds are rare. The results were based on approximately 8 million doses dispensed to children in that age group.
Rather than follow the regulators' guidance, Bolsonaro's Health Ministry published an online questionnaire asking if children should need a doctor's prescription to get the shot. Some of the president's supporters, like him leery of vaccines, campaigned on social media apps for people to vote against them for children.
Despite that, a majority of the survey's almost 100,000 participants opposed the need for prescriptions and the Health Ministry announced last week it would allow children to be vaccinated.
An 8-year-old from the Xavante Indigenous group was the first to get a shot at the ceremony in Sao Paulo's Hospital das Clinicas, one day after 1.2 million doses designated for children arrived at an airport in the state.
The boy has been undergoing treatment in Sao Paulo for a genetic disease that requires him to wear braces on his legs. His father, Jurandir Siridiwe, a tribal leader, watched his son's immunization broadcast via the internet.
"If we had started immediately after Anvisa (the health regulator) approved in December the Pfizer vaccine for children of this age, today all the children in Brazil would have been vaccinated with at least one dose," Gov. João Doria said at the event.
The Health Ministry recommended an eight-week interval between children's first and second doses of the Pfizer shot, rather than the three weeks recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Sao Paulo state, that means children who are scheduled to return to in-person classes at public schools on Feb. 2 will do so before receiving a second dose.
While children are much less likely than adults to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19, advocates said vaccinating them can minimize the virus' spread in their families and society as a whole.
Brazil has begun experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said Thursday the highly transmissible omicron variant has become the dominant strain in Brazil.
By Friday afternoon, only six of Brazil's 27 states had received vaccines for children. The Health Ministry's press office cited logistical hiccups and told the Associated Press the doses will be delivered to the remaining states over the weekend. Most of them will begin vaccinating children Monday.
Brazil has about 20 million children aged 5-11, according to the ministry.