The number of people getting the flu vaccine this year is 83 percent higher than it was last year, according to a report published last week by the Center for Disease Control in Israel's Health Ministry.
As a result, incidence of the flu has been lower than in previous years, the report said. This has been reflected in a drop in the number of people arriving at clinics and hospitals with breathing problems or pneumonia.
The report was published shortly before the launch of a large-scale campaign to vaccinate Israelis against the coronavirus. The Health Ministry and the health maintenance organizations have been urging people to get their flu shots early in the hope of getting as many people as possible vaccinated against the flu before the coronavirus vaccine campaign starts.
The surge in the number of people getting flu shots stems from fear of being hit by a double whammy – the flu and the coronavirus. As of December 5, the report said, 22.1 percent of Israelis had received flu shots, up significantly from 12.1 percent during the same period last year, 16 percent in 2018 and 17.1 percent in 2017.
Among people age 65 or older, whom the ministry is especially eager to have vaccinated this year, the vaccination rate hit 65.6 percent, up from 43.9 percent during the same period last year. For chronically ill people below age 65, the rate is 33.8 percent, up from 21 percent during the same period of 2019.
Among the rest of the Israeli public, people aged six months through 59 years, the rate has more than doubled, from 9.1 percent last year to 19.4 percent this year.
Aside from the increase in flu vaccinations, experts say the social distancing rules dictated by the coronavirus have also helped lower incidence of the flu.
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“Our fear was that these two events might combine,” said Dr. David Mossinson, chief medical officer of the Meuhudet HMO. “Our goal was to vaccinate as many people as possible against the flu to reduce incidence of the flu, and of a combination of the two diseases, insofar as possible even before there was a coronavirus vaccine.
“At this stage, incidence is low,” he added. “It’s possible that social distancing, wearing masks and strict hygiene have worked to our advantage on this issue.”
Hospitals and HMOs are still worried about what the winter will bring. A normal flu season is enough to fill hospitals to capacity or beyond and also places a heavy burden on HMO clinics, so the possibility of the flu on top of the coronavirus is a nightmare scenario. But so far, it hasn’t materialized.
This fear prompted the health system to buy twice as much flu vaccine as usual, around four million doses. Also unlike previous years, the vaccine is being offered in stages this year.
Initially, only the elderly and people in other risk groups were offered the vaccine. Only afterward was it made available to the general public, though it has been available to everyone for several weeks now. This phased vaccination was necessary in part because the doses are arriving piecemeal, due to increased demand worldwide.
Another reason for the desire to vaccinate people against flu as soon as possible is that Health Ministry rules require an interval of at least two weeks between the flu shot and the coronavirus vaccine (or vice versa). Mossinson said the purpose of this delay is so that if patients have a negative reaction, it will be possible to know which vaccine caused it.
“Aside from that, we want to finish vaccinating as many people as possible against the flu so we will be able to invest our resources primarily in coronavirus vaccinations,” he added. “But in any case, we’ll continue to vaccinate against the flu alongside the coronavirus vaccine campaign.”
Despite the low incidence of the flu so far, Mossinson urged people not to be indifferent to the dangers of the flu. “We’re still only in December, so the flu may yet arrive,” he said. “We’ve had years in which the winter illnesses – flu and flulike diseases – arrived later on.”