Israel has begun vaccinating teenagers aged 12 to 15 against COVID-19, following the publication of a promising study that demonstrates the vaccine is not as harmful as initially thought for young males.
There are 600,000 12-15 year-olds in Israel, and 10,000 vaccine appointments have been booked for children in the age group so far.
The Health Ministry announced the campaign will go ahead last Wednesday, after a study on a possible link between the vaccine and heart inflammation in young males, a condition known as myocarditis, found that the risks of myocarditis are minor compared with those of COVID-19.
According to the study's findings, which were delivered to the Health Ministry yesterday, the second dose of the COVID vaccine was linked to cases of myocarditis in males aged 16-30, with the risk decreasing with age. Most myocarditis cases linked to the vaccine were mild and lasted only a few days.
The Health Ministry's decision was made after a conference between the ministry's immunization committee and the epidemic taskforce. The Health Ministry also decided to immediately allow the vaccination of youngsters with underlying medical conditions, those who live with relatives who are at a higher risk from the coronavirus, as well as youngsters who will be travelling abroad.
Prof. Nachman Ash, who leads the Israeli efforts against the virus, told Israeli 103 FM radio station that though the vaccine can cause myocarditis, the phenomenon is rare. "In ages 16-19, which is our reference group, the ratio is one in 6,000 and the illness is mostly mild and brief," he said. "It is more common in boys than in girls. We can't really explain it, it must have a biological explanation, maybe a genetic influence, but we don't know for certain."
The chairman of the Israel Association of Pediatrics, Prof. Zahi Grossman, who took part in the Health Ministry discussion, said that because of the low infection rates, the issue was not urgent. "We're not in a situation of a raging epidemic," he said. "The infection rate is almost zero, and that was why the discussion was so long." According to Grossman, "the best course between these considerations is to make the vaccine available to anyone who wants it." Grossman added that the Health Ministry might change its policy come the new school year in September, depending on the rates of infection and vaccine developments.
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In Israel, 275 cases of myocarditis were reported between December 2020 and May 2021 among more than 5 million vaccinated people, the ministry said in disclosing the findings of a study it commissioned to examine the matter.
Most patients who experienced heart inflammation spent no more than four days in hospital and 95% of the cases were classified as mild, according to the study, which the ministry said was conducted by three teams of experts.
The study found "there is a probable link between receiving the second dose (of Pfizer) vaccine and the appearance of myocarditis among men aged 16 to 30," it said in a statement.
According to the findings, such a link was observed more among men aged 16 to 19 than in other age groups.
Pfizer said in a statement that it is aware of the Israeli observations of myocarditis, noting that no causal link to its vaccine has been established.
Adverse events are thoroughly reviewed and Pfizer meets regularly with the Vaccine Safety Department of the Israeli Ministry of Health to review data, it said.
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory group last month recommended further study of the possibility of a link between myocarditis and mRNA vaccines, which include those from Pfizer and Moderna Inc.
CDC monitoring systems had not found more cases than would be expected in the population, but the advisory group said in a statement that members felt healthcare providers should be made aware of reports of a "potential adverse event."