Israeli health officials are encouraged by the COVID-19 vaccination rate among teenagers, but the number of young teens inoculated in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities remains low.
Recently, almost 20,000 Israelis have been vaccinated daily. While that number is much lower than at the start of the vaccination drive for adults in December, health professionals say it's respectable for this stage.
Since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved for 12- to 15-year-olds in Israel about a month ago, 11.9 percent of this age group, some 90,000 youths, have received at least one dose. But in the ultra-Orthodox community, only 2.9 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds have received the first shot.
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Still, 24 percent of ultra-Orthodox children 12 to 15 are classified as recovered from COVID-19, a very high number. In the other age groups in the Haredi community, vaccination rates are higher: 66 percent among 16- to 29-year-olds, 74 percent among 30- to 49-year-olds and 84 percent among people 50 or over.
“From what we're seeing, some people in the ultra-Orthodox community mistakenly believe that it’s a mild disease and ignore the complications,” said Einav Shimron, the Health Ministry’s deputy director of information. Or they believe that most of the community has been exposed to the disease, so there is no need to be vaccinated.
The Health Ministry and Israel's four health maintenance organizations are now asking religious leaders to encourage their followers to be vaccinated. Health professionals say rabbis providing clear directives will have the best effect.
On Thursday, Dr. Ran Balicer of the Clalit HMO and Dr. Itai Pessach, the director of the Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center, visited Chaim Kanievsky, a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi. They presented him with figures and opinions of senior doctors on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine for anyone 12 or over. Other rabbis have also been asked to instruct their followers to have their children inoculated.
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“I see everyone running to get vaccinated; I’m positively surprised,” said Rabbi Yossi Erblich of Lemaanchem, a group that provides medical advice. “I have no doubt we’ll see a rise in the number of vaccinations in the next few days. The rabbis are already asking whether to vaccinate recovered children as well.”
In the Yated Neeman newspaper, Dr. Meshulam Hart, who is close to Kanievsky and another prominent rabbi, Gershon Edelstein, called in their name to vaccinate all children 12 and over.
In the Arab community, only 2.8 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds have received their first shot. In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox community, only 7.1 percent of the children in this cohort have recovered from the virus.
Shimron of the Health Ministry said that in addition to an information campaign for Arabic-speakers, doctors are reaching out to people in East Jerusalem, the so-called Triangle towns in north-central Israel and Bedouin villages. “Our surveys show that the main obstacle is fear of the vaccine's side effects,” she said.
The vaccination rate in the Arab community is similar to that in the ultra-Orthodox community: 66 percent in the 16-29 age group, community, 79 percent in the 30-49 age group and 85 percent among those 50 and older.
Dr. Zahi Said, an adviser to the head of the Clalit HMO, says Arab Israelis see that children aren’t the main victims of the disease, so they're rarely getting their kids vaccinated.
“There were doctors who until two weeks ago didn’t give a clear-cut answer on the vaccination, so people hesitated,” he said. “Now there are clearer statements, but it will take some time until Arab parents are convinced.”
Even now there are still tens of thousands of Arab citizens over 16 who have not been vaccinated.
Prof. Nihaya Daoud of Ben-Gurion University’s School of Public Health says the Arab community always treated vaccinations suspiciously, so the muted response now isn't surprising. The reports of side effects – mainly inflammation of the heart muscle – got many families worried, she said, but added that the desire to go abroad during the summer will encourage Arab parents to vaccinate their children.
Vacation rates remain particularly low among Arab residents of the Negev in the south. “The behavior and atmosphere is like we’re post-coronavirus – it’s very troubling because there’s almost no compliance with children’s vaccination,” said Dr. Naim Abu-Freha, the chairman of the Arab Medical Association in the Negev.
“Right now there’s no effort to encourage people to get vaccinations in the Arab communities in the Negev. In the meantime, we’ve returned to the routine, including massive weddings.”