The Health Ministry concealed the deaths of 11 individuals who received the flu vaccine, the Army Radio reported yesterday. The Ministry put a freeze on inoculations about a month ago, after four others died shortly after receiving flu shots. The initial incident led to a day-long suspension of the vaccinations in health clinics across the country.
A Health Ministry investigation has found no link between the deaths and the vaccines.
"No causal connection was found between the deaths that took place in proximity to receiving the vaccination," the Health Ministry found in its inquiry into the deaths. "According to the medical records, the deceased have no symptoms or causes of death in common."
The investigation also found that "the mortality risk among those who received the vaccination was no higher than expected for this population group - that is, elderly people and sick people with extended illnesses."
The Health Ministry recommends that this at-risk population receive a flu shot by the end of the month.
The Army Radio report was based on a speech by Dr. Amelia Ennis, the director of the Health Ministry's department of infectious diseases, at a public health conference at Ben-Gurion University on Thursday.
Ennis said at the conference that the Health Ministry had carried out an extensive investigation of a possible connection between the flu shots and the total of 15 deaths, and found nothing linking the deaths to the vaccines.
All the people who died in the first four reported deaths had received vaccines from the same production batch, and three of them got the flu shots at the same Leumit clinic in Kiryat Gat, giving rise to the suspicion that the deaths were somehow linked.
However, epidemiological testing, an examination of the patients' medical records and interviews with healthcare professionals showed that the flu shots received by the 11 others who died were from different batches. The patients were also from different parts of the country, and all were elderly or suffered from long-term illnesses like heart disease or diabetes. In addition, toxicological testing on the vaccines turned up nothing unusual.
"All the meticulous testing showed that there is no connection between the instances of death and the vaccinations," said Health Ministry director general Prof. Avi Yisraeli. "The chance of dying during the winter season is higher among those who receive flu vaccines, since they are counted among the population at risk - that is, the elderly and those with chronic diseases."
However, data from the two largest health maintenance organizations indicates the deaths may have scared people away from flu shots. Clalit has vaccinated 425,000 people this year, 77 percent of those it vaccinated last year, and Maccabi has vaccinated 148,000, 60 percent less than the year before.
A total of 1.2 million vaccine doses were purchased ahead of this year's winter flu season, to combat the five strains of flu against which the World Health Organization and the Health Ministry recommends inoculation: A, B, Caledonian, Wisconsin and Malaysian. Only about a 10th of all inoculations needed by the public are available at present because of delays in growing the virus cultures by the two major vaccine manufacturers in the U.S. and France. The Health Ministry therefore recommends the shots first be given to those whose chronic diseases put them at high risk of complications from the flu, first and foremost the elderly and the chronically ill.
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