Despite a strong start to its national inoculation campaign, which saw Israel hailed globally as a COVID success story, the country has fallen behind when it comes to childhood vaccination, and many previously vaccinated adults are now unprotected against the virus after declining to receive booster shots.
A significantly lower proportion of children under the age of 12 have been vaccinated in Israel than in other countries which have rolled out pediatric vaccines, with the country lagging behind the United States, Canada and China.
According to the Health Ministry, as of Saturday just over 58 percent of eligible Israelis over the age of five are fully vaccinated, meaning that they have received three doses or are within a six-month window following their second dose. A further 9.3 percent are double-vaccinated but have allowed more than six months to pass without getting a booster shot, while 32.4 percent are unvaccinated.
This means that more than 40 percent of Israelis have a low level of protection against the omicron variant of COVID, putting a significant portion of the population at risk of contracting the virus, Prof. Ran Balicer, the head of an expert panel advising the Health Ministry, told Army Radio on Sunday.
Since Israel authorized the vaccine for five- to 11-year-olds three weeks ago, just 110,000 have received the jab out of a possible 1.2 million.
According to Health Ministry data, 8.9 percent of Israeli children aged five to 11 have received one dose since becoming eligible on November 23, as opposed to 17.49 percent in Canada, which started vaccinating children three days later. Israel also trails the United States, which, according to the U.S.' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has given one dose to 18 percent of children since starting its own campaign in early November. On top of this, according to the New York Times, China —which says it wants to vaccinate all of its children by the end of 2021— vaccinated 84 million over the age of three within two weeks of launching its own campaign last month.
Israel’s childhood vaccine uptake also lags behind its teenage vaccination rate. Around a month after beginning to vaccinate youths aged 12-15 in June, 11.9 percent of this age group, some 90,000 youths, had received at least one dose, despite significantly lower rates in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities.
Speaking with Haaretz on Tuesday, Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said there are several reasons for the low childhood vaccination rate, including “the false perception that we are after the fourth wave, we have time, so we can wait and see the results.”
“There is a lot of fake news going around and even people who were vaccinated sometimes are more anxious about their children because they think that there are some long-term effects,” he said. “Of course, this is not true.”
With Israel starting to vaccinate students at school however, “there will be a great improvement,” he asserted, noting that Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has been reluctant to implement Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s directive to allow vaccination to take place in schools.
This August, the Health Ministry released a survey which found that parents with low education and below-average incomes living in the southern, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv districts were less likely to report having vaccinated their children.
Among the respondents, 13 percent asserted that the virus is not dangerous for children, 13 percent believed that the vaccine is ineffective, and 8 percent said that their children had antibodies. Only 1 percent said that they opposed the vaccine on principle.
According to a recent Israel Democracy Institute poll, support for vaccinating children against COVID among Israelis aged 25-44 lags significantly behind the rest of the population, despite members of this age group being among the most likely to have small children.
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Addressing the cabinet in November, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who previously dubbed the current spread of COVID in Israel a “children’s wave,” called on parents to vaccinate their children, stating that people need to “go out and take advantage of these precious days” because “we will not succeed in forever delaying omicron.”
Speaking with Haaretz late last month, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, Israel’s top public health expert, called unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals, including children, the primary vector for the spread of the virus, stating that low childhood vaccination rates could contribute to the virus’ spread.
The approximately 1 million Israelis who have received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine but have declined to get a booster shot “feel protected but they are not,” she said.
This group of"booster refusers" represents 15 percent of all Israelis aged 12 and over who have been vaccinated and is separate from the 670,000 Israelis who decided to avoid vaccines altogether.