Portugal becomes European leader in vaccination after public health campaign

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Henrique Gouveia e Melo, the former submarine commander who became a low-key hero in Portugal’s fight against Covid-19, could not help his voice cracking with emotion when he was greeted with a standing ovation prolonged in a crowded vaccination center.

“I couldn’t help myself,” said the gray-bearded vice-admiral, who heads the country’s immunization task force, referring to the moment. ” The people were. . . telling me ‘we are with you’.

A week earlier, he had won praise for his handling of an anti-vaccine protest, calmly telling angry protesters that “the real killer is the virus” as some in the placard-holding crowd shouted “murderous” at him. .

Such protests have been rare in Portugal. An overwhelmingly positive public response to Gouveia e Melo is one of the many factors that have made the country a leader in the global race for Covid vaccination.

About 83% of its population is already fully vaccinated and 86% have received at least one dose, which means it now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world alongside the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

Portugal leads a group of EU countries that have overtaken Israel and the UK in immunization issues – where the double-bite rate stands at 61% and 66% respectively – despite the strong lead of the pair at the start.

“What matters is to vaccinate enough people to protect the whole group,” Gouveia e Melo said at a press conference this month. “Being first, second or third in the world is not important.”

He said he was confident that 86% of Portugal’s 10.3 million people would be fully vaccinated by the end of September.

This, he said, was the maximum level possible, given that children under 12, people with certain medical conditions and vaccine resistant – estimated at around 3% of the population – will not receive no vaccines.

Health experts attribute the success of vaccination in Portugal to constructive cooperation between doctors, the military and local authorities. They also cite public recollections of how vaccination has been used successfully against measles, polio and other deadly diseases.

Pedro Simas, executive director of the Católica Biomedical Research Institute in Lisbon, believes that the strong public support for the program has its roots in Portugal’s first national vaccination plan in 1965.

“It has been a huge success and people have understood and trusted the benefits of vaccination ever since,” he said.

Marta Temido, Minister of Health, said Portugal’s National Health Service has always focused heavily on primary care. “Our doctors and nurses have been at the heart of a strategy based on large-scale vaccination centers in which the support of the military and municipalities has been vital,” she told the Financial Times.

People waiting for vaccination at a vaccination center in Seixal, on the outskirts of Lisbon
About 83% of the Portuguese population have been fully vaccinated and 86% have received at least one dose © Patricia De Melo / AFP / Getty Images

Gouveia e Melo, who was named head of the task force in January, instilled confidence in a program that began under bad auspices two months earlier amid allegations of queue jumps, resulting in the resignation of the former chief, an administrator of a hospital.

“The charisma, professionalism and reliability of the Vice-Admiral quickly made him one of the most popular and respected figures in the country,” said Miguel Prudêncio, biochemist and researcher at the Institute of Molecular Medicine ( IMM) of Lisbon, one of the many scientific organizations working to educate the public on issues related to the coronavirus.

Gouveia e Melo brought with him a team of around 30 military strategists, mathematicians and doctors to work with health ministry officials to coordinate a network of around 300 vaccination centers, many of which are based in municipal sports stadiums. Managed by approximately 5,000 doctors, nurses and volunteers, the system administered approximately 154,000 jabs per day at its peak.

Fear also played its part. Portugal suffered one of the world’s worst case outbreaks in January and February, as the vaccination program began. The country was among the first countries in the EU to be affected by the more infectious variant of the Delta coronavirus.

“The striking images of ambulances lined up in front of hospitals clearly had an impact,” IMM’s Prudêncio said.

Keeping the vaccination voluntary is considered another important factor.

“Unlike many other European countries, we did not need to discuss vaccination mandates,” said Ricardo Baptista-Leite, doctor and health spokesperson for the opposition Social Democrats. “The vast majority of people understand that the best solution currently available to control this disease is vaccination. “

In October, the focus will be on influenza vaccination.

“We won the first battle against the coronavirus, but the war is not over,” said Gouveia e Melo, whose penchant for wearing military fatigues is a constant reminder of her background. “We now need to focus on tackling the seasonal flu and determining whether booster shots of Covid-19 will be needed. “

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