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Argentine parents seek Pfizer vaccine for disabled kids

July 6, 2021 GMT
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Lorena Torbidoni sings to her 16-year-old daughter Milagros Da Giau at their home in La Plata, Argentina, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Milagros’ family is one of many who are asking the government to reach a deal with Pfizer in order to immunize children in Argentina who are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
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Lorena Torbidoni sings to her 16-year-old daughter Milagros Da Giau at their home in La Plata, Argentina, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Milagros’ family is one of many who are asking the government to reach a deal with Pfizer in order to immunize children in Argentina who are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

LA PLATA, Argentina (AP) — Milagros Da Giau hasn’t slept well for months. She more often chokes while drinking. Her joints have begun to swell.

The parents of the 16-year-old cerebral palsy patient help her use an assistive device to improve her posture and stretch her muscles, but they lack the skill and strength of the kinesiologists who were forced to stop visits in April 2020, when pandemic began to hit.

“There were days when she didn’t sleep at all,” said her father, Francisco Da Giau. “Not having her habitual routines, not having activity, not getting tired, that altered her sleep and she has epileptic crises.”

The teenager, who lives in La Plata, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Buenos Aires, is among thousands of young Argentines — like many disabled people around the world — who have seen their conditions worsen under pandemic restrictions while awaiting vaccines that would allow them greater freedom.

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And her parents are frustrated that a solution seems within reach: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine approved for youths in other nations but isn’t yet available in Argentina.

The government so far is vaccinating people 35 and over with the Russian Sputnik V and shots from AstraZeneca and China’s Sinopharm. Neighboring Peru, Chile and Uruguay, meanwhile, have started giving Pfizer shots to some disabled people as young as 12.

Argentina has struggled to get enough vaccines for those already eligible, however. So far, about 10% of the country’s 45 million people have received a full two-shot series of vaccines, according to the Health Ministry.

Therapists and teachers are considered essential workers, eligible for vaccines — so only the lack of coverage for teenagers keeps patients like Milagros from being able to resume a semblance of normal life.

Milagros spends much of the day in a wheelchair, often gripping the hand of her mother Lorena Torbidoni as they watch music videos on the television. She’s had to leave behind trips to rehabilitation centers for therapies on auditory, muscular and other issues.

Roberto Debbag, vice president of the Latin American society of Pediatric Infectology, said the lack of therapies during the pandemic for lack of vaccines has set back the condition of many patients.

Da Giau started a group of about 400 families in the VacunaMe — “VaccinateMe” — network who are seeking access to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. An attorney, Da Giau, has filed a petition asking courts to require it on human rights grounds.

Argentina’s talks with Pfizer broke down last year, apparently due to a law that bars the government from absolving the company of potential liability for negligence related to vaccine side effects.

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Health MInister Carla Vizzoti said a recent decree signed by President Alberto Fernández should help overcome that problem and she tried to assure families of vulnerable youths that “we are working so that they receive the vaccine as quickly as possible.”

Members of VacunaMe held a protest last week in the La Plata to demand the vaccines, pushing empty wheelchairs with photos of their children.

Some youths have taken up the demand as well.

“As a child, I was hospitalized many times and they just about killed me with shots,” said Ramiro Merlo, a 15-year-old with cystic fibrosis who has posted demand for vaccines on his Instagram account. “It seems crazy to me that I and many others have to be asking for a jab,” he said in an interview.

He said he hasn’t left his house throughout the whole pandemic, depending on online consultations by camera with a pneumologist and nutritionist.

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Associated Press journalists Víctor Caivano, Eva Vergara, Guillermo Garat and Franklin Briceño contributed to this report.