Israel Hoped to Vaccinate 750,000 Toddlers Against COVID. Few Parents Have Heeded the Call

Only 378 kids between the ages of 6 months and 5 have been vaccinated against COVID in the past two weeks, since the campaign started. Experts attribute this to a decline in public anxiety about the virus and relatively low morbidity rates among children

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A nurse gives COVID-19 vaccine to child, in 2021.
A nurse gives COVID-19 vaccine to child, in 2021.Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Over two weeks after Israel launched a campaign to vaccinate children ages 6 months to 5 years against the coronavirus, only 378 have been inoculated, an average of about 26 a day and just a tiny fraction of the target population of about 750,000.

The Israel Pediatric Association attributed the low vaccination rate to what it said was the feeling among the general public that COVID is no longer the danger it once was. Other factors playing a role were summer school vacation and many parents choosing to wait to see whether the vaccine is truly safe.

The director general of the Health Ministry approved use of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines on July 6. “The vaccine is recommended especially for children with a risk of severe illness from [COVID], because of a chronic disease or treatment that damages the immune system,” it said at the time.

A child receiving COVID vaccination, in Netanya, in January.Credit: אבישג שאר-ישוב

The recommendation came after the vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and after two meetings of local experts endorsed the plan after studies were presented showing the vaccine’s efficacy and safety.

Several weeks were needed to prepare the vaccine program and for the first shipments to arrive, so their first shots were not administered by health maintenance organizations until August 1. The children’s version of the vaccine has a lower dosage of 3 micrograms, compared with 10 micrograms for children ages 5 to 11 and 30 micrograms for those 12 and older.

Out of the 378 children who have been vaccinated, 271 are members of Clalit Health Services, which means that for the rest of the HMOs the daily numbers of those vaccinated are in the low single digits.

The health-care system had expected a tepid response for a number of reasons. Not only has the sense of urgency receded regarding COVID, but the vast majority of young children develop only mild symptoms without serious complications. Data on overall vaccination rates in Israel since the COVID vaccination campaign began 20 months ago show that these fall with age.

A child receiving COVID vaccination, in Netanya, in January.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

For example, 79.5 percent of children ages 5 to 11 have not been vaccinated at all against the coronavirus. For another 18.9 percent of the children in this age range, their vaccinations have expired. Only 1.6 percent are considered to be effectively vaccinated.

For the 12-15 age group, the vaccination rate is a higher 56 percent, but for all but 4 percentage points of that group the vaccine’s efficacy has waned. Among adolescents ages 16 through 19, the rate is 72 percent, but efficacy has waned for all but 4.4 points of that total.

Prof. Zachi Grossman, the chairman of the Israel Pediatric Association, is not surprised by these figures.

“Fortunately, the disease has undergone changes in recent months, not only in regard to babies but also for adults. To a degree, that’s good. It’s now seen as less important and less threatening. When it comes to children, they are affected by the general perception,” he said. “Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to convince the public that vaccination is important to prevent the disease and the complications arising from it. People respond accordingly. The public is suffering from coronavirus fatigue, and this is one of its manifestations.”

There are other factors explaining the lack of interest in vaccinating young children, said Grossman. The timing of a vaccination campaign has a huge effect.

“We’re in the middle of summer vacation, many Israelis are on vacation and children aren’t in any kind of educational framework, so until the school year starts you can’t reach any conclusions from current figures. In the coming months, the situation could change,” he said.

“When children will return to these frameworks, there could be more infection. In that regard, vaccination against the coronavirus could take on a seasonal character, akin to the vaccination against the flu. Even with flu vaccination campaigns, the first few weeks always start slowly until winter comes and incidences [of the flu] rise. Another scenario, which I hope doesn’t occur, God forbid, could be the emergence of a new variant, which could affect interest in vaccination,” said Grossman.

The Health Ministry’s recommendation on vaccination focused on children with higher levels of risk, such as those with chronic diseases, including pulmonary diseases, cancer or weak immune systems. It also included children in households where another member is at high risk.

From the start, Israel’s COVID vaccination campaign prioritized adults and children in the high-risk groups for vaccination before others in the same age groups. Yet, in the current campaign, even though it has also focused on high-risk young children, 378 vaccinations still constitutes a very small number.

Grossman added that in the United States, which began to vaccinate young children several weeks before Israel did, the vaccination rate stands at about 5 percent.

“Surveys conducted on this in the U.S. show that large numbers of parents are choosing to wait several months to see what happens," Grossman said. "In Israel, too, it’s likely that there are parents who have a positive attitude about vaccinations but are still sitting on the fence and waiting. It won’t hurt. We didn’t think that the minute the vaccine was approved in Israel, everyone would run to vaccination centers. People are taking a long-term view."

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