Israeli health officials are worried about a measles outbreak in Jerusalem. The city has the highest number of diagnosed new cases of the highly contagious disease in Israel, and some figures in the field of public health say they’re not sure the Health Ministry is up to the challenge of containing its spread.
In the year to date, 341 cases of measles have been reported in Jerusalem — more than half of all reported cases in the country this year. In September alone, 213 new cases were reported, and experts expect the total number of cases in the current outbreak to be 10 times that number.
“Hospitals in Jerusalem are getting between five and 10 new cases of measles every day,” said a senior physician who specializes in diseases said and was speaking on condition of anonymity. “The medical teams are doing Sisyphean work to try to locate everyone who may have come in contact with each patient, but they can’t keep up, and the disease continues to spread.”
The physician said the Health Ministry must launch a national information campaign calling on residents to stay current with their vaccines, the situation will get worse and the disease will spread to other areas of the country. “Such a contagious disease won’t just stay in Jerusalem, it will spread. We have a problem and we must solve it,” he said.
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Health officials began to express concern in August, when the number of new measles diagnoses in the Jerusalem area suddenly jumped to 69, from six to nine a month. Doctors were urged to refer unvaccinated children for immunization. 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.
“We’re in a situation where a critical mass has been created and thus the outbreak is serious. We are seeing a significant rise in the number of diagnoses — in adults, but mainly in children,” Schlesinger said.
He said the children coming to the hospital are either babies under a year old who have yet to get their first dose of the vaccine, or older children who have never been vaccinated or never got the second dose.
“At this point, fortunately, we don’t have patients in intensive care but we have kids with serious pneumonia, and a pregnant woman who was infected, whose baby had to be treated with antibodies immediately after birth to prevent him from getting sick. In previous outbreaks there were more serious cases,” Schlesinger said.
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Schlesinger said that in Jerusalem, the low vaccination rate in some neighborhoods isn’t necessarily the result of some principled decision or deliberate choice, but rather a lack of awareness and understanding of the implications of failing to vaccinate.
And even people who think they’ve been immunized are not necessarily protected.
“What many people don’t know is that there’s a large segment of the population, those born between 1957 and 1977, that wasn’t properly vaccinated,” said Prof. Eli Schwartz, an expert in infectious diseases at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. “The Health Ministry warns travelers to Europe and countries where measles is endemic [to get vaccinated] but it has to focus on populations that were not properly immunized and call on them to get vaccinated,” he said.