COVID Is Killing High Numbers Of Children In Brazil, And Experts Aren’t Sure Why

by Virginia Duan
Originally Published: 
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Now that we are a year and a half into the pandemic and deaths in the U.S. are trending downward — especially with almost 38% of the total U.S. population fully vaccinated — some sense of normalcy has returned to many of us. In particular, since the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 and up and we’re on track to have safe and effective COVID vaccines for children 6 months and older by the end of the year.

But in Brazil, COVID deaths are now at their highest. Though all the evidence points to COVID rarely killing young children, the numbers of very young kids dying of COVID are much higher in Brazil than they are in the U.S. It’s tragic, and the experts aren’t sure why — although the failed response by the right-wing government is thought to be responsible for over 360,000 preventable deaths.

Babies and small children are dying of COVID in Brazil

COVID has killed an estimated 1,300 babies in Brazil since the start of the pandemic, according to NBC News. Official data from the Health Ministry reports that 832 children aged 9 and under have died of the virus — and this number includes 500 babies. However, experts believe the real death toll is likely much higher because of underreporting due to the lack of widespread COVID testing. For perspective, though the U.S. has vastly more people than Brazil as well as COVID deaths (as of May 19, the U.S. is at over 584,000 deaths), 139 children 4 and under have died in America.

Why are there more kids dying of COVID in Brazil?

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Experts aren’t clear why so many more babies and small children are dying of COVID in Brazil — though there are many likely overlapping reasons.

Failed government response

One of the main reasons Brazil is now second in terms of COVID deaths (number one is still us — go, USA!) is because President Jair Bolsonaro has opposed lockdowns and continued to hold large events where he appears maskless. Though Bolsonaro has recently begun to support vaccinations as a possible remedy, the low COVID testing rates, vaccine shortages, lack of social distancing, and absence of contact tracing efforts have all contributed to an environment that increases risk and exposure to Brazilian citizens.

P.1 variant likely leading to higher death rates

While there is no evidence currently available on the different impacts of COVID variants, scientists say that these variants are contributing to the rise of more severe infections in healthy, young adults, as well as increasing the number of deaths among babies and children.

Additionally, experts say pregnant women infected with the P.1 variant are at increased risk to die — some are giving birth to stillborn or premature infants already infected with COVID. Dr. André Ricardo Ribas Freitas, an epidemiologist at São Leopoldo Mandic College in Campinas, led a recent study on the impact of P.1 and told The New York Times, “We can already affirm that the P.1 variant is much more severe in pregnant women.” Dr. Ribas Freitas added that often, if the pregnant woman is infected with the P.1 variant, “…the baby might not survive or they might both die.”

Lack of timely and adequate health care access for kids

Experts also think the increased number of deaths can be accounted for partially by the lack of access to health care for many children once they get sick. For infected children in the U.S. or Europe, early intervention and treatment has been vital to the recovery of kids who contracted COVID.

But in Brazil, because children are not expected to get COVID as severely and because the doctors are overworked and children are being sent away and not immediately tested, they haven’t been able to correctly identify the illness as COVID until the children are in much worse condition.

While the mortality rate for children with COVID remains very low, children are at greater risk if they live in countries with uneven medical care. Even prior to the pandemic, millions of Brazilians living in poor areas had limited access to basic health care and now that the Brazilian medical system is overwhelmed by critically ill patients, the resulting shortage of beds limits access even more.

Dr. Ana Luisa Pacheco, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Heitor Vieira Dourado Tropical Medicine Foundation in Manaus told The New York Times that “…for some children, it takes three or four hours by boat to get to a hospital.”

Multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C)

In some situations, children with COVID also experience MIS-C, which is an extreme immune response to the coronavirus, causing vital organs to inflame. A study published in the January edition of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal reported that the children of Brazil and four other Latin American countries developed more severe forms of COVID and more cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome when compared to children from China, Europe and North America.

Poverty and underlying health issues and comorbidities are a huge factor


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According to an observational study of COVID patients under 20 years old led by Braian Sousa of the São Paolo school of medicine, comorbidities and socioeconomic vulnerabilities were listed as risk factors for the worst outcome of COVID infections in children.

According to Dr. Fátima Marinho, an epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo, over 25% of children with severe COVID infections also had underlying health issues and preexisting conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or were overweight. Additionally, due to crowded housing conditions which make it impossible to properly socially distance when sick — as well as no access to a local ICU — poverty is a huge reason why children are at greater risk.

“Most vulnerable are black children, and those from very poor families, as they have the most difficulty accessing help,” Dr. Marinho told “The New York Times.” “These are the children most at risk of death.”

How can we keep our kids safe from COVID?

Even though this is currently affecting children in Brazil, it can easily happen here if we become lax with precautionary measures, getting fully vaccinated, and our hospitals become overwhelmed with a possible 4th wave of COVID. Regardless of the variant or spread, we know that it works to cover your face with a mask, avoid crowded spaces, choose areas with good ventilation — especially outside — and to constantly wash your hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

If your child is 12 years or older, get them vaccinated as soon as possible. Keep their other vaccinations up to date and continue to be cautious with who your children — vaccinated or not — spend time around. Remind your kids of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. And most of all, keep in mind that though kids are 8,700 times less likely to die than adults over 85 — COVID can also kill children — especially if there are underlying health issues, difficulties in access to health care, and complications like MIS-C.

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.

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