Measles Outbreak in Israel Spikes to Nearly 900 Cases in Year to Date, 60% of Them in Jerusalem

Diagnoses jumped to 529 this week, from 341 last week as Health Ministry orders more vaccines

An Israeli kid receiving a vaccine in the Israeli city of Lod
Ilan Assayag

The number of people diagnosed in Israel with measles has spiked since the start of the year to 882, the Health Ministry said Tuesday.

Some 60% of these cases, a total of 529 people, were in the Jerusalem district. In Safed, 115 cases were diagnosed. An additional 74 cases were reported in Petah Tikva, 55 in greater Tel Aviv, 27 in Acre and 27 in Ramle.

The figures reflect a continued rise in the infection rate. Last week Haaretz reported 679 cases since the start of 2018. More than half, 341, were in Jerusalem. In September, 213 new cases were reported.

Health officials expressed concern in August about signs of a measles outbreak in Jerusalem. Jerusalem District Health Officer Dr. Chen Stein Zamir pointed to low immunization rates in the capital and surrounding areas.

The district has decided to do an immunization campaign, stressing areas where the ultra-Orthodox live. Professor Yehiel Schlesinger, director of the Wilfe Children’s Hospital at Sha’arei Tzedek said “the problem in Jerusalem is with certain population regions, such as some of the Haredi areas where there are pockets of unimmunized people, and not everyone makes sure to be vaccinated.”

Vaccination campaigns were carried out in neighborhoods with low vaccination rates, with a focus on ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. These efforts were only partially successful, as the steep jump of new cases in September demonstrated.

“The problem in Jerusalem is in areas and populations, like some of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, with pockets of non-vaccination, or where not everybody gets vaccinated,” said Prof. Yechiel Schlesinger, an expert in infectious diseases and director of the Wilf Children’s Hospital at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

The ministry blames the outbreak on people failing to be vaccinated, but the public health funds said Monday they had a shortage of vaccines. The head of medicine for Clalit Health Services, Dr. Doron Netzer, told the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee the health maintenance organization will run out of the measles vaccine by Friday. A representative of Meuhedet said, “I have more than 20 cases of exposed people I cannot treat.”

In response, Health Ministry Deputy Director General Prof. Itamar Grotto acknowledged the vaccine shortage but said it was intended for a very specific group. “Out of 20 people who were exposed to the disease, perhaps one should be immunized. You are vaccinating people unnecessarily, act professionally,” he told the committee.

The ministry ordered an additional 400 doses of measles vaccine after the Knesset meeting. Grotto said “the disease exists only in people, and therefore if everyone is immunized it will disappear.”

Some 95% of people in Israel are immunized, but there are population groups where fewer than 90% are immunized “and that’s where the outbreaks can happen,” Grotto said, adding that more than 90% of those who contract the disease were not vaccinated.

MK Yulia Malinovsky (Yisrael Beitenu) pointed an accusatory finger at the ultra-Orthdox community, saying their refusal to immunize their children endangers public health. MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) replied: “One cannot help but protest the ignorance demonstrated here. This is a professional debate about health matters, it’s not political.”

Former Health Minister MK Yael German (Yesh Atid) urged Haredi rabbis to exert their influence and to call on their followers to immunize their children.

MK Ayelet Nahmias Verbin (Zionist Union) one of the initiators of the urgent debate, said she had measles as a child and urged parents to immunize their children. MK Merav Ben Ari (Kulanu), acting committee chairwoman, added: “I met a man whose son has complications from measles. So my answer to all those who say it’s not so important to immunize [is that] it’s irresponsible for a parent to expose his children and other children to disease.”