Israel's Health Ministry Tries to Contain Public Outcry Over Polio Inoculations

As the government announces a campaign to vaccinate 150,000 children in the south of Israel, members of the public have called parents to abstain citing safety concerns.

Dan Even
Dan Even
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Dan Even
Dan Even

Health Ministry officials attempted on Monday to contain a public outcry as the ministry started to inoculate 150,000 children who live in the south of Israel against polio.

The campaign comes in response to a spread of the virus, first detected in May in the sewage system in the Negev town of Rahat, and subsequently elsewhere in the south and in communities in the Sharon area. The children are to be inoculated with the same vaccine given in well-baby (Tipat Halav) clinics, which contains a weakened form of the virus.

A Facebook group called “Mothers say no to the weakened virus vaccine” was launched last week, and by the time of writing had more than 780 members. The group claims that the vaccine “was banned [in Israel] in 2005 and declared dangerous by the Health officials in Israel and everywhere in the world since it caused dozens of children to contract polio and become paralyzed.”

The group is referring to the vaccine that was used in Israel until 2005, which included three strains of the weakened polio virus. It was taken out of use in Western countries for fear of side effects — namely, that the disease itself might break out among those who had received the vaccine. Since 2005, Israeli children have been given a different vaccine that contained a dead form of the virus.

Health Ministry officials have emphasized, however, that a new vaccine is administered in the new campaign. It has been given since 2010 to millions of people worldwide as part of the World Health Organization’s effort to stamp out polio, they say, adding that the vaccine does not contain a violent form of the virus that was made extinct in 1999.

Members of the group voiced their concern that children would have to be vaccinated again, using the weakened virus, while they had already been routinely vaccinated with the dead virus.

But the Health Ministry has claim in response that the purpose of the second vaccination is to target children who only carry the virus - and have not developed symptoms because they were immunized - and prevent them from passing the virus on to other family members.

“While the new vaccine was approved in 2009, we still don’t know whether it was ever subject to an independent safety study rather that a commissioned one,” says Shiri Gorman, one of the mothers who set up the Facebook group. “To the best of my knowledge, no study has ever been carried out to fully evaluate the risks. The vaccine also poses a real risk to people with compromised immune systems, like the elderly and babies.”

The Health Ministry, for its part, tried to emphasize the urgency of the matter. “Although no cases of polio have been diagnosed in Israel in this outbreak, we believe that about 1,000 or more Israelis are carrying the polio virus at any given moment and passing it on,” Health Ministry Director-General Professor Ronni Gamzu said in a press conference on Sunday. “Considering the high level of immunization among the public, the risk of the vaccine that will be given is zero. It is our duty to do it and help protect the entire population.”

In Israel, up to 20 percent of parents have not inoculated their children according to Health Ministry instructions, either fully or partially. A recent study, carried out by the University of Haifa at the behest of the Israel National Institute for Health Policy Research, has found that a principled refusal to vaccinate babies is rampant mainly among educated parents. A cross section of 14,232 files of babies found that 7.4 percent of them had not completed the required vaccinations appropriate for their age. In some of the cases, the reason was a wish to avoid certain vaccinations. In 18 percent of the cases, the parents asked that vaccines that are usually combined be given separately.

A little girl gets vaccinated against polio.Credit: AP

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