In Peru, rumors fuel reluctance towards the vaccine among indigenous people


A healthcare worker carries a cooler filled with doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a door-to-door vaccination campaign targeting residents of Lake Titicaca in Puno, Peru on Wednesday, October 27, 2021. While over 55% of Peruvians have received at least one injection of COVID-19 vaccines, only around 25% of people in indigenous regions have been vaccinated. (AP Photo / Martin Mejia)


Maribel Vilca didn’t even bother to go to the community meeting to brief her indigenous community on COVID-19 vaccines.

“What happens if I die from the vaccine? I have young children, ”she said, expressing distrust of government health services after bad experiences with two pregnancies.

Fears expressed by a 38-year-old woman who lives near the shores of Lake Titicaca are common among Peru’s indigenous people, who make up about a quarter of the country’s 33 million people – and they have complicated the national vaccination campaign.

While more than 55% of Peruvians have received at least one injection of COVID-19 vaccines, only around 25% of people in indigenous areas have been vaccinated.

Authorities say this is in part due to the difficulty of obtaining vaccines in the remote Andean and Amazon regions where many indigenous peoples live and distributing them. Some clinics are so poorly funded that they run out of fuel for their vehicles.

And some indigenous representatives complain that, like in other countries in the region, the government has been slow to coordinate with indigenous leaders on how best to reach these communities.

But it’s also true that ingrained mistrust of government authorities has made people open to baseless rumors and conspiracy fantasies – spread through social media or word of mouth – about vaccines that could save the day. thousands of lives.

Despite overwhelming evidence, based on more than 7 billion doses of the vaccine delivered worldwide, that serious side effects are very rare, Vilca said she was concerned that a gunshot could kill or injure her.

Rumors about vaccines, sometimes broadcast on local Quechua-language community radio, often mimic the Q-Anon-type misinformation broadcast on social media in the United States and Europe about tracking microchips or terrible side effects.

And for the indigenous peoples of Peru, ancient and recent history arouses suspicion.

Many remember a government project led by doctors and nurses that sterilized an estimated 273,000 indigenous women during Alberto Fujimori’s presidency from 1990 to 2000.

Perhaps no nation has been hit harder by the virus than Peru: it has reported more than 200,000 deaths, with a per capita death toll worse than any major nation, according to data from the ‘Johns Hopkins University. Per capita, Peru has lost more than twice as many people to COVID-19 as the United States or Brazil.

Still, infections and deaths among the country’s indigenous people have been much lower, with fewer than 700 indigenous deaths from COVID-19 reported by the health ministry – perhaps one of the reasons many are feeling less urgency to get vaccinated.

Julio Mendigure, the ministry’s director of indigenous affairs, said the most common rumors he hears are that the vaccines contain tiny chips, which they could be used to sterilize women or reduce men’s sexual vigor or induce premature death.

Rural nurse Marina Checalla said others believed vaccines could cause a magnetic field that attracts metal or improves phone signals.

In a small-scale effort to help overcome mistrust, the government turned to the Red Cross, which has a good reputation in rural areas. Starting in August, it sent nurses and volunteers to 64 communities to answer questions about vaccines in local languages.

Red Cross health coordinator Paul Acosta said of 1,777 people they had spoken to, 70% had been vaccinated.

The government also allocated $ 6 million for a campaign to promote vaccines in Amazonian communities, hiring local residents to help promote the vaccines.

But such efforts often come after people already skeptical of official intentions have spent months exchanging bizarre conspiracy theories.

In the mountainous village of Santa Cruz de Mijani, in the Puno region of Peru, Josefa Espinoza, 54, told the Red Cross vaccine promoters that “I would rather die without getting the vaccine” because she had heard that with the “right vaccines” there are others that “cause death”.

Espinoza, who listens to local radio stations while tending to her livestock, said she believed the virus was created in a lab “by rich countries” and that a new, more potent variant would be spread by the fleas and bees and snakes “produced by the rich countries … the rich are going to manipulate us and that is what worries me,” she said.

In San Antonio de Poutina, Alicia Chura said she heard on a local Quechua-language radio station that vaccines were being given to the elderly to kill them because the country “is filling up with so many people”.

On the floating Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca, boatman Joel Huilca said he was wary of vaccines since a measles vaccine as a child left him in pain for several months.

As for the COVID-19 vaccine, “they say it leaves you like a zombie; they’re going to put a chip in and they’re going to know where you’re going and what you’re doing.

The persistence of such ideas frustrates nurse Marina Checalla, who was trying to promote life-saving clichés during the meeting Vilca skipped in Jochi San Francisco,

“There are myths that do damage and that do not allow us to reach populations,” she said.

More than 70 people showed up, but only 30 were shot.

One of those who did was Celso Quispe, 82, despite his wife and three grown children not having done so.

“There are comments, but I don’t believe them,” he said. “What do people know? “

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