flu - Ilan Assayag - January 11 2011
A young patient receives a flu shot in Lod. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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A Health Ministry committee has recommended that all Israelis over 6 months old be inoculated against the flu.

Priority would go to specific population groups, then, depending on stocks, the vaccination would be made available at the health maintenance organizations to anyone interested.

The priority groups include anyone suffering from a chronic illness, anyone aged 50 and above, people who live in institutions such as hospitals and prisons, pregnant women, children above 6 months, medical staff, social workers and caregivers.

In the recommendation by the Health Ministry's steering committee on infectious diseases and inoculations, Israel is adopting a policy already in place in the United States for three years.

The move follows a decision by the steering committee to begin discussions by next year on procuring stocks that would allow a "flu inoculation for all."

The four HMOs have procured more than 1.32 million doses of flu vaccine. According to the regulations set down recently by Dr. Paul Slater, the Health Ministry's epidemiology chief, family doctors and pediatricians will begin vaccinating against the flu on October 2, immediately after Rosh Hashanah.

The HMOs were instructed to prepare for the possibility that children up to 9 may need two shots over a month.

The Clalit HMO is gearing up to begin offering inoculations a week earlier, even though the arrival of the vaccination has been delayed because of a labor dispute at the Health Ministry's main laboratory in Kiryat Shaul.

Every year the inoculation is against three types of flu; this year's version is the same as last year's. It includes swine flu and two flu variants originating in Perth and Brisbane, Australia.

According to the World Health Organization, the flu epidemic this year will be similar to that of last winter.

The organization notes, however, that even those inoculated last year will have to receive a shot again this winter, especially the very old, the very young and the chronically ill.

"Each year it is necessary to provide a booster shot to bolster the immune system because the inoculation creates antibodies that are lost over time and are not at their peak for more than a season," said Dr. Giora Werber of Clalit, who is leading the fight against the flu at the HMO.

This also applies to anyone who received an inoculation against swine flu in the past. "It is believed that the virus is still active, has mutated and mostly strikes the young," Werber said. "The fact that the flu may undergo changes requires an immunization each year."

In the coming months the Health Ministry will be following closely the public's response to calls for flu shots. The response was very low last year until December, in part because of the warm weather late in the year. But in January, amid reports of deaths stemming from the flu, a minor panic ensued that led to a shortage of the vaccine.

Normally, about 57 percent of those over 65 are inoculated. But only 17 percent of children up to the age of 5 were inoculated last year, receiving at least one dose.

Last year, 1.19 million Israelis were inoculated against the flu.