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Senior officials within the health ministry have harshly criticized the ministry's leadership, headed by Prof. Avi Israeli, in regard to the handling of an outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant pathogen in the country's hospitals that has been publicized in recent weeks.

Over two weeks ago, infection prevention specialists warned Israeli, the director-general of the health ministry, and his deputy Dr. Boaz Lev, that there had been a "meteoric rise" rise in infections and deaths resulting from an antibiotic-resistant bacteria strain identified as Klebsiella pneumoniae since the beginning of 2006. Patients admitted to hospitals for other ailments have been getting infected with the dangerous bacteria and doctors estimate that over the past year, dozens have died as a result of the infection.

The health ministry issued official instructions to hospitals on the prevention and containment of the outbreak on Sunday, more than two weeks after the problem became known to them.

A top health ministry official told Haaretz on Sunday that the performance of the ministry in light of the affair was "characterized by helplessness," and is an example of a "first degree failure." He added that "there is a strong suspicion that the ministry abandoned the public, failed a grave failure, and is now busy only with minimizing the scandal. Worse than that, the ministry is not drawing conclusions form the affair. This should concern the public."

Two years ago, senior doctors specializing in the prevention of infections demanded that the health ministry set up a national authority for the prevention of the spread of infections inside hospitals. The doctors say that had such an authority been founded, the current outbreak could have been contained and its effects could have been much less severe.

Haaretz asked the health ministry for Prof. Israeli's response to the criticism against him, but the ministry spokeswoman said the ministry refuses to respond to comments issued by anonymous sources.