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Israel is suffering a serious shortage of doctors who specialize in prenatal care, and has a 50 percent higher rate of infection for premature babies than in Western Europe and the United States, according to a report released by an advocacy group for the families of premature babies.

In Israel, 31 percent of the premature babies who weigh less than 1.5 kilograms at birth develop neonatal sepsis, an often life-threatening condition.

"A society that loves life must do everything to assure the well-being of those fragile and helpless flowers that have blossomed in it - and there is nothing like the look of a preemie a few hours or days old to reflect that truth," said Oren Malberger, who heads Lahav, the nonprofit association that compiled the report.

Malberger, whose organization is aimed at improving conditions for premature babies and their families and for reducing the incidence of premature birth in Israel, recommended that the Knesset urgently pass a law requiring that all funds due to neonatology wards go directly to those wards.

The NIS 139,996 grant that hospitals receive from the National Insurance Institute for each premature baby they treat currently goes to the hospital administration rather than the neonatology department.

The report found that the hospitals are not giving the money to neonatology.

MK Orli Levy-Abekasis (Yisrael Beiteinu ), the incoming head of the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child, has asked Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to get the hospitals to give their neonatology departments the funds due them.

In May, the Israeli Medical Association warned that the country's entire neonatology system was about to collapse; back in 2004, a state comptroller's report called on the Health Ministry to examine the consequences of failing to fill the required posts.

Twenty percent of positions for medical staff who treat premature babies are unfilled, according to 2009 data from the Israel Neonatal Society. It also found that the country's hospitals need an additional 78 neonatologists though there is no budget for them.

Nurses are also in short supply, with each nurse responsible for five or six premature babies, and sometimes up to eight, according to hospital officials cited in the report. The Health Ministry recommended in 1994 that each nurse should be responsible for just four premature babies, with two nurses responsible for every three in intensive care.

The shortage is likely to get worse. "It appears the shortage of medical personnel will become still more extensive in the coming years," the report said. Some nurses, it said, work with premature babies before they have been sent for training.

The Health Ministry said it has allocated funding for an additional 125 neonatology nursing positions over the next five years. The ministry also said it was working on reducing the shortage of neonatologists, but was hampered by an increase in premature births.

"The number of premature babies born in Israel is on the rise," the ministry said. "The Health Ministry is dealing with a shortage of doctors in general, and with a shortage in a number of specialties in particular, including neonatology. In the course of clarifying the matter, these doctors were given an incentive, and the ministry is engaged in planning additional steps."

The ministry said it was negotiating with the treasury for more spots for neonatologists as well as more hospital beds.