Health ministry officials are concerned that Israel could be facing an outbreak of measles after an unusually high number of cases struck the country in recent weeks.
The ministry noted in a circular on the matter that some patients were infected abroad while others contracted measles in Israel. The circular asked health care professionals to be on high alert for possible measles cases, quoting symptoms such as "fever and rash, particularly if accompanied by a cough or eye infection.” The potentially dangerous illness can strike at any age, it added.
The ministry circular set out techniques to counter the spread of the illness, including isolating suspected cases "away from other patients and medical staff."
Measles becomes an extremely delicate matter when complications set in: The most vulnerable are children under 5, adults over the age of 20 and patients with weakened immune systems. On average one in 1,000 patients could die of the disease. Measles is highly contagious and is passed directly from one person to another by coughing, sneezing or contact with an infected patient’s nasal mucous or phlegm, or even from viruses that can survive several hours after a patient has left a room. The risk of infecting an exposed individual who is not vaccinated is as high as 90 percent.
Most but not all of Israel's population is vaccinated against measles. Inoculations against the disease began in 1967 with one dose and, starting in 1978, two doses began to be administered, at one year of age and one in first grade.
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The ministry circular asks doctors to act on the first suspicion of measles and to take blood and urine samples from patients who are thought to be infected. Health Ministry district physicians are being asked to inoculate any patient suspected of having measles within 72 hours.
Last week, a passenger with measles landed in Israel on a flight from India. The Health ministry issued a warning to passengers on the flight who may have experienced measles symptoms to seek medical attention and noted that babies under a year old, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable.
Measles is caused by a virus. Symptoms include a rash, a runny nose, sore throat and redness in the eyes. It can cause serious respiratory and nervous system complications. About a third of patients will also develop other complications, including lower ear infection diarrhea or corneal infections. Rarer complications include pneumonia and encephalitis. In rare cases, ten years after the measles infection, the disease can cause brain degeneration resulting in irreversible damage to the nervous central system, including cognitive decline and convulsions.
Over the past decade, there have been several measles outbreaks in Israel, the largest of which was in 2007 and 2008 and hit unvaccinated ultra-Orthodox children particularly hard. There was another more isolated outbreak in 2011 and 2012.