Polio vaccine.
Polio vaccine. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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The Health Ministry is launching its polio vaccination campaign Sunday around the country to inoculate about 1 million children from 4 months to 9.5 years old.

The inoculations will be given at 1,000 Health Ministry well-baby clinics, as well as at well-baby clinics run by health-maintenance organizations and municipalities.

Although the campaign will last for three months, the ministry is calling on parents to have their children inoculated before they return to school “to reduce the number of infections at schools as much as possible.”

The two-drop, oral inoculation contains two types of weakened virus: strain 3 and strain 1, which has been discovered in Israel’s sewage systems since May. The Health Ministry may administer another dose depending on the inoculation rate and the spread of the virus through the sewage system.

The ministry says the dual vaccine is safer than weakened viruses given in Israel until January 2004. That vaccine also contained strain 2, a wild strain considered extinct since 1999.

The ministry also notes that the weakened-virus inoculation will only be given to children who have received at least one dose of killed virus, administered as a matter of course at age 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 1 year and again in second grade. Thus the chance of children contracting polio from the current inoculation is nil.

The strain identified in the sewage system is strain 1, which was identified in Egypt in December. It is believed to have been brought to Israel by a traveler from Egypt.

According to the Health Ministry, most polio carriers are children up to 10 years old who have been inoculated with the killed virus but have not been inoculated with the live, weakened virus.

Under the campaign, children with weak immune systems will not be inoculated, out of concern that they will not be able to fight off the virus. Children in contact with relatives with weakened immune systems, such as those with leukemia or lymphoma or those undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or taking high doses of steroids, will also not be inoculated.

The Health Ministry is expected to soon ask physicians to inoculate patients with compromised immune systems, such as those who have undergone bone marrow transplants, with another dose of killed virus beyond the usual dosage. This would protect them if they are exposed to the weakened virus during the latest campaign.

The inoculation program is already under way in around 66 communities in southern Israel. The response is considered good, with over half the region’s children in the target group receiving the dose by the end of the week – 60,000 out of 100,000.

“The main goal is for the inoculated children to serve as a protective wall through which the polio virus cannot pass and spread in the population,” said Dr. Eli Somech, chairman of the Israel Pediatric Association and head of the ministry’s advisory committee for the program.

To protect children with weakened immune systems who are not receiving the inoculation, hygiene will be emphasized. “Hands must be washed after going to the toilet and before touching food,” Somech said.

Unlike the south, where well-baby clinics extended their hours until 8 P.M., inoculations elsewhere will be given during regular office hours, because the ministry defines this campaign as less urgent. But the larger well-baby clinics will open on Fridays as well from 8 A.M. to 1 P.M. to administer doses.

The ministry’s chief of public health, Prof. Itamar Grotto, has told clinics that regular inoculations will be given to babies. Premature babies, newborns on their first clinic visit and babies with known health problems will be treated.

niformed ushers will direct parents at the well-baby clinics and additional administrative staff will be present. Shade, cold water and extra benches will be provided. Parents will be instructed to wait with their children for 15 minutes to check for any immediate allergic reaction.

So far, no cases of active polio have been identified in Israel, although the virus is still spreading through the sewage system. Its appearance in Ramle and Lod led to the final decision to go nationwide with the inoculation.

In 1988, during the last outbreak of polio in Israel, 15 patients who were infected became paralyzed. All were from the Hadera and Or Akiva areas.

According to the World Health Organization, only five countries are said to have a significant polio problem: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, where the disease is endemic, and Somalia and Kenya, where isolated cases have occurred. The WHO wants to see the disease eradicated worldwide by 2018.