The Health Ministry is preparing for a renewed outbreak of measles following the Passover vacation, when many Israelis visited abroad. Ministry sources said there is concern that the disease could be incubating during this post-holiday period and that new cases will be reported within days.
Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov has contacted all the chief district physicians and asked them not to hesitate to use their authority to keep unvaccinated children out of schools and preschools if there are signs of a potential outbreak of the type that reached its peak last September and October.
In a statement released Wednesday the ministry asked the public to try to avoid traveling to Ukraine, Georgia, Madagascar, Albania and Liberia. Anyone who must visit those countries should make sure they have received two doses of measles vaccine.
The ministry is weighing whether to issue a formal travel warning for Ukraine, where there has been a serious measles outbreak, even if doing so results in diplomatic fallout. In 2018 more than 35,000 cases of measles were recorded in that country, and during 2017 and 2018 there were 30 deaths.
Between March 2018 and February 2019 there were 3,590 cases of measles recorded in Israel, of which 2,110 were in the Jerusalem District. Most of the infections have been in children under the age of nine. The height of the crisis was in October, when 947 cases were reported. Since then, after the Health Ministry took measures to increase the vaccination rate, there has been a downtrend. In January there were 326 reported cases, while in February there were 136.
In recent weeks there have been almost daily announcements by the Health Ministry about cases of possible measles exposure – on flights from abroad, at cultural events, on public transportation and even in supermarkets – in which it continues to call on the public to get vaccinated. Measles is an especially contagious disease, and nine out of every 10 unvaccinated people who are exposed will get infected. The disease is being spread mainly by unvaccinated children.
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In January, the Knesset passed a first reading of a bill that would force parents to take responsibility for their decision not to vaccinate their children by applying proportionate economic sanctions that do not harm the children themselves or their right to an education. It would also establish the state’s authority to take exceptional measures, including keeping unvaccinated children out of school if there is a real concern about an outbreak because of deficient vaccination coverage.
The Health Ministry supported the legislation, but none of its sponsors – Merav Ben Ari, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and Yoel Hasson – were reelected to the Knesset. As a result, the ministry director-general has decided not to wait for the bill to be advanced, and is relying on the legal authority that already exists to keep unvaccinated children out of school.