Rising to Nine, Flu Death Toll in Israel Spurs Nationwide Race to Vaccinate

Ninety-eight additional people have been hospitalized in serious condition, prompting some 1.4 million Israelis to get a flu shot

File photo: A nurse administering a flu shot at a health maintenance organization in Tel Aviv, 2015.
Tomer Appelbaum

The health system is reporting a significant rise in the number of flu cases in recent weeks compared to the corresponding period last year. The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians have issued an urgent call to the public to get flu shots.

According to a report by the Health Ministry’s Center for Disease Control, nine people have died from flu-related complications and 98 have been hospitalized in serious condition. One possible reason for the rise in deaths is the presence of the H1N1 flu strain – known as swine flu – in Israel. All nine people who died had contracted the H1N1 strain, which appeared earlier than usual this year.

Moreover, the health maintenance organizations offered flu shots to their members late this year, because the World Health Organization was late in approving the vaccine serum. As a result, the vaccination rate in November and December was lower than in past years.

In recent days three people have died who had been hospitalized due to complications from the flu: a 19-year-old man, who died earlier this week at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem; a 14-year-old girl who died at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, and a 50-year-old man who died at Assuta Hospital in Ashdod.

Deputy Health Ministry director general Prof. Itamar Groto said that in recent years the swine flu strain has been less dominant compared to other strains, and would appear later in the flu season. “This year we are seeing an early, high presence of the H1N1 virus. That could explain the rise in morbidity this year, because unlike other strains, which even people who weren’t vaccinated might have been exposed to and developed natural immunity, there’s an entire population – particularly the young population – which hasn’t been exposed [to the swine flu strain].”

As of Sunday, some 1.4 million Israelis had gotten a flu shot. The vaccination rate as of Sunday was 15.7 percent, compared to 17.2 percent in the comparable period last year, and 18.1 percent in 2017. According to the Center for Disease Control report, the vaccination rate among those 65 and over was 51 percent (compared to 55 percent last year); among those 6 months to five years old it was 13 percent (compared to 15 percent last year).

News of the deaths and the rise in morbidity has spurred more people to seek flu shots. On Wednesday Clalit Health Services reported that they were expecting 18,000 people to be vaccinated by the end of the day. Some 900,000 people had already been vaccinated by the HMO. The Maccabi HMO also reported a sharp rise in vaccinations, from an average of 2,200 a day to 10,000 on Wednesday. The Meuhedet HMO reported 6,000 vaccinations on Wednesday, compared to some 1,600 daily since the vaccination campaign began.

Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov said that those who require hospitalization due to complications from the flu are generally the elderly and young children, who develop pneumonia and other respiratory problems. Some children’s wards are reporting occupancy of over 100 percent, even though it is relatively early in the flu season.