The Health Ministry vaccinated some 30,000 children on Sunday, marking the first day in a battle to stymie a fast-spreading polio virus that has national and global health authorities concerned about an outbreak.
Some 1,000 Tipat Halav children’s clinics throughout the country began giving the oral vaccination to all children born after January 1, 2004. The vaccine contains a drastically weakened strain of the virus which will spread from the children and inoculate the population as a whole.
The ministry called the 30,000 vaccinated on the first day a “promising start that exceeds all expectations.”
The operation is expected to last 60 days and require approximately one million doses, which were ordered in recent weeks from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline at a cost of approximately NIS 1 ($0.28) per dose.
Earlier this month, Health Ministry Director General Roni Gamzo stressed the importance of the vaccination.
The polio virus “is spreading. We must stop it,” he told Army Radio.
Gamzo reassured parents that the vaccinations were safe and attempted to assuage fears raised because the treatment is based on a living polio virus rather than a dead sample. “There are no significant side effects,” he said. “The danger is zero. Vaccinate your children so that the child will not carry and spread the disease to your family and friends.”
Most of the dozens of cases detected so far – over a thousand people are believed to be carrying the virus throughout the country – were in children under age 10, the Health Ministry said in a statement Saturday.
While Israeli children are already vaccinated against polio, the vaccine they receive as infants, in which the virus is dead, “does not protect against contagion,” the statement explained.
The virus has already appeared in Lod, Ramle and the Sharon region, the ministry noted. “Our findings point to a steady process of contagion and spread. The results of our examinations are clear-cut: Israel is facing a wild polio virus that is passing from person to person, from city to city. It is only a matter of time before it spreads to the entire country.”
The ministry urged all parents to take all children of the appropriate age to their nearest Tipat Halav clinic for the vaccination.
“The danger from this disease is real and imminent, and is not expected to disappear if the children go unvaccinated,” the ministry statement said.
The virus is believed to have arrived in Israel from Egypt, where polio was discovered in sewage last December. Health authorities believe it first arrived in Israel in February, crossing the border from Egypt to the southern Bedouin city of Rahat. It was first detected in Rahat’s sewage in late May.
The vaccination process in the south began in early August, when the Health Ministry decided to inoculate some 150,000 children in the 66 towns and communities of the southern Negev desert. Some 60,000 children have already been vaccinated as part of that initial effort, the Health Ministry reported on Saturday.
Israeli children are vaccinated against polio as part of the regular national infant vaccination program, and are in no danger from the live strain in the new vaccine, officials have said. Authorities decided on using a live virus in order to guarantee that the degraded vaccinating strain, which builds antibodies in the digestive system, will spread from children to their surroundings, quickly immunizing the general population.
One person in every 200 who contracts the virus at its full strength suffers damage to their nervous system that leads to varying levels of paralysis. A global effort to eradicate the virus has driven the number of cases of paralysis down from some 350,000 instances 25 years ago to just 223 cases in 2012.
The last outbreak of polio in Israel occurred in 1988. Sixteen Israelis suffered paralysis from that outbreak, which was contained in a similar national vaccination effort.
Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.