Fearing Major Polio Outbreak, Israel Now Aims to Vaccinate 2 Million Children

After a small outbreak of polio cases was detected in Jerusalem, the Health Ministry has decided to expand the vaccination campaign and begin inoculating babies as young as six weeks

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
A child receives the polio vaccine in Jerusalem, earlier this month.
A child receives the polio vaccine in Jerusalem, earlier this month.Credit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry is expanding its polio vaccination campaign to all of Israel, a few weeks after an outbreak of the virus was first detected in Jerusalem.

The campaign initially began three weeks ago in Jerusalem after a number of children were found to have been infected with the polio virus one of whom was paralyzed. The expanded campaign, which would cover the entire country, starts Wednesday.

The polio vaccine is normally given in six doses, four containing an inactivated virus and two with a weakened but live virus – between the ages of 2 months and 18 months. A booster is then administered at age seven.

The Health Ministry decided as part of the campaign to move up the first two doses of the vaccine, to 6 weeks and 10 weeks of age, in order to rapidly increase protection in children. It has also moved the first dose of the weakened virus to 10 weeks, with the second to be administered four weeks after that.

The ministry plans to vaccinate about 2 million children. Most of the children who need to complete their vaccination regimen were born between 2005 and 2013, when only the inactivated virus vaccine was given in Israel. In 2013, after the virus was discovered in sewage in many locations throughout the country, the Health Ministry launched a wide-scale vaccination campaign – and brought back the weakened-virus vaccines as part of the country's routine vaccination process.

But the children who were vaccinated in the 2013 campaign received only one dose of the weakened virus vaccine, and will now need to receive the second. The ministry is also calling for all children who were never vaccinated against polio to do so. Children who have already been vaccinated according to the Health Ministry program do not need to receive any more doses.

“We are experiencing a polio outbreak in Israel," said Health Ministry Director General Dr. Nachman Ash on Tuesday. "It has come from unvaccinated groups, and we are seeing more communities testing positive via sewage tests. It is possible to prevent and overcome the outbreak of the disease by completing the vaccinations."

The head of the polio-vaccination campaign at Clalit Health Services, Ruth Baruch, said, “The disease carries risk for anyone who has not been vaccinated at all, infants who have not yet been able to be vaccinated, people who were partially vaccinated in the past as well as people with suppressed immune systems due to their medical history."

"Any person who is not fully vaccinated could be infected and infect others, without becoming ill themselves," Baruch added.

The polio virus is transmitted between people through saliva and feces. The virus has three strains and most of those infected do not develop any symptoms at all, or very mild ones that typify many other illnesses: fever, lack of appetite, sore throat and fatigue.

Between 4 and 8 percent of those infected develop mild meningitis characterized by a fully spontaneous recovery within a few days. In very few cases – approximately 1 out of 1,000 infections – paralysis develops. In addition, cases where the virus invades the nervous system can lead to respiratory failure – one of the most common and dangerous complications of the disease.

“The virus could very well replicate in the digestive system of those who have not been fully vaccinated, and those people could infect others around them," said Baruch. "The goal is to raise the level of vaccination of the entire Israeli public, particularly in children, and in doing so to prevent the spread and development of the virus."

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