There's No Measles Outbreak in Israel, Health Ministry Reassures

Despite a certain anti-vaxx trend, notably in some ultra-Orthodox and trendy communities, isolated cases have all come from abroad and were contained, ministry tells Haaretz.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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In this Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015 photo, a pediatrician holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif.
In this Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015 photo, a pediatrician holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif. Credit: AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Health authorities in the United States Monday found it necessary to warn "anti-vaxx" parents against deliberately exposing their children to measles, in a misguided attempt to bolster natural resistance to the disease. In Israel meanwhile, the health authorities take pride in the World Health Organization having declared in July 2014 that Israel has eradicated the disease.

Make no mistake, that does not mean the disease, which is extremely contagious, is completely nonexistent in Israel.

"It means that there are no long chains of infection within Israel," the Health Ministry explained to Haaretz. "But sporadic cases can occur, among travelers who were infected outside the country, or Israelis who came into contact with such people."

Last year, in 2014, Israel had six known cases of measles, says the Health Ministry. All were "imported" – arriving with travelers, or people infected by travelers who caught the disease abroad.

This year, despite rumors of outbreaks making the rounds on social media, only five cases have been located in Israel, states the ministry – all in the Tel Aviv area and all imported or associated with a person who had been abroad.

The situation in the United States is something else entirely.

In 2014 there were 644 cases, a sharp increase from previous years, and so far 100 cases have been reported this year – most of whom had not been immunized, and most of which originated from the "ground zero" case in Disneyland, says the Health Ministry.

For comparison, in the era before immunization had been invented, the United States typically had between 3 to 4 million cases a year (!) of which 48,000 were hospitalized and 500 would die.

The statistics attest that vaccinations work - which may have been a sort of Pyrrhic victory for the health authorities.

The very disappearance of the disease may have helped encourage the anti-vaccination movement, which runs the gamut from parents who just don't realize that vaccinations matter to pundits – such as the American right-wing radio personality Glenn Beck – who compared anti-vaxxers with Galileo (i.e., persecuted), announced on his radio show this week that God gave him personal choice, and therefore, he said, "I’m going to say no to those vaccines because I’ve done my homework."

Routine but not mandatory in Israel

Israeli children are routinely immunized against the viral trifecta of measles, mumps and rubella, using weakened live viruses.

The inoculations are given in two doses, at about age one and a booster in first grade.

That said, inoculation is highly recommended by the health authorities but is not mandatory in Israel, the Health Ministry explains, adding that it's absolutely free – parents bear no share in the cost of vaccination.

Almost all Israeli children do receive MMR "shots" – in fact 96% as of the year 2012, says the Health Ministry (not having the data for following years).

"Despite the high national rate, there are some groups that forgo vaccination," the ministry admits – theoretically making these groups a natural "breeding ground" for an outbreak, starting from one "ground zero" case.

The Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat itself reported in 2012 that the Health Ministry was concerned about relatively low rates of immunization in Haredim towns and cities, after certain influential rabbis – such as the Lithuanian community posek Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman – recommended against inoculation.

In March 2013 another Haredi website, B'Hadrei Haredim, reported that 22 cases of measles had been discovered in Jerusalem that year, mostly among non-immunized members of the ultra-orthodox community.

That spurred the deputy mayor of Jerusalem Shlomo Braska to ask the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Moshe Amar, to issue a call that would raise awareness of the benefits of immunization among the Haredim community, B'Hadrei Haredim reported.

Israel has had outbreaks before. Between August 2007 and May 2008 some 1,000 cases were reported, versus just a few dozen the year before.

And when necessary, it seems the Israeli health authorities can react fast.

Last November the press reported that the mother of a child at a Herzliya kindergarten was diagnosed with measles and all the children in her kid's class were immediately inoculated. None got infected.

To correct an apparently common misconception, measles is a viral disease and cannot be treated with antibiotics, or indeed anything else.

There is generally no cure for viral diseases: at best the symptoms are treated and the immune system boosted, when possible and appropriate, to help the body overcome the infection.

In the case of measles, the most doctors can do is recommend rest (to boost the immune system), give drugs to ease discomfort (pain, fever) and, if the measles leads to an opportunistic bacterial infection - the doctors can prescribe antibiotics to cure that.

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