Some 60,000 Israelis flocked to their HMOs to get the flu vaccine on Wednesday, more than triple the number who got vaccinated the previous day. The upsurge followed media reports of 10 deaths and numerous cases of serious illness caused by this winter’s flu virus and its complications. Maccabi HMO has already ordered more vaccines and the other HMOs are ready to do so if necessary.
On Thursday the HMOs had 200,000-250,000 vaccines left, though shortages have been reported in individual clinics. At this rate, more widespread shortages may be felt in the next few days before new vaccine supplies arrive. If that happens, the HMOs may give priority to people in high-risk groups, namely those aged 65 and up, infants, toddlers and pregnant women.
The Clalit HMO, which administered vaccines to some 30,000 people on Thursday – and 930,000 since the beginning of winter – has a stock of about 100,000 vaccines. This HMO is the largest in Israel and has 4.5 million members. The Maccabi HMO vaccinated 18,000 people on Wednesday, compared to just 2,200 on an average winter day. The upsurge in people requesting the vaccine continued on Thursday morning, with 12,000 getting vaccinated in four hours in Maccabi clinics.
This HMO has already ordered 45,000 more vaccines to be distributed in its clinics on Friday. The Meuhedet HMO immunized some 8,700 people on Wednesday and has 45,000 vaccines left. Leumit HMO vaccinated some 3,200 people and has some 35,000 vaccines left.
Ten people have died from flu complications this winter – four of them in the past week. On Thursday an 18-month old toddler died due to flu complications and earlier this week three other people died, including a 19-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl. The number of deaths from flu complications is high this year, especially given that it is early in the season, with the peak expected at the end of January.
Health professionals say the particularly brutal flu season this year is due to several factors, including the low vaccination rate in November and December and the severity of the particular flu strains. But experts note that the vaccine is effective against these strains.
“The flu virus is cunning and changes every year,” says Dr. Erez Carmon, of Meuhedet HMO’s central district. “The virus that came to us this year is much more aggressive than what we’ve known in previous years. This is due not only to the swine flu strain, but to the genetic composition of the other active strains which is different and more virulent and causes the body more damage,” he says.
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“This is reflected in harsher symptoms, in higher frequency and in more severe cases, in which even young, healthy people without other diseases could become seriously ill due to flu complications,” says Carmon, who urges people to get vaccinated.