A massive operation to inoculate some 150,000 children in the south of the country against polio began on Monday morning as part of a Health Ministry effort to stamp out the virus before it can infect anyone.

All children up to the age of nine from some 66 towns and communities stretching from Kiryat Gat to Mitzpeh Rimon are to get the oral vaccination after the virus was discovered in sewers in the south.

Next week, the ministry will decide whether to give the vaccines to all children under nine years of age nationwide. The battle has been described by some commentators as one of the most serious public health crises in Israel for decades, though experts believe catastrophe can be averted if the vaccination program unfolds as planned.

Health Minister Yael German on Monday toured several mother and baby Tipat Halav clinics in the south where staff administered the vaccine, which contains a live, weakened strain of the polio virus.

German urged local residents to bring their children in “for the sake of their own health and for the health of the environment.”

Director General of the Health Ministry Roni Gamzo echoed German’s call and in an interview with Army Radio stressed the importance of the vaccination project.

“It is spreading and it is continuing to be spread,” Gamzo said of the virus. “We must stop it.”

Gamzo reassured parents that the vaccinations were safe and attempted to calm fears raised because the treatment is based on a living polio virus rather than the usual 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 diseases to your family and friends.”

A strain of polio is believed to have arrived in the southern Bedouin city of Rahat in February 2013, where it was first found in sewage in late May. Health officials believe it was brought over the border from Egypt, where polio was discovered in sewage last December.

After the Health Ministry studied the problem, it decided to vaccinate 150,000 children in the southern Negev area, and to consider expanding the program to a nationwide, 60-day operation that would see local clinics and schools participate in reaching most of Israel’s infants and schoolchildren. Some 500,000 doses have been ordered from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, with a cost of approximately NIS 1 ($0.28) per dose.

Health Minister Yael German (photo credit: Flash90)

Health Minister Yael German (photo credit: Flash90)

The first batch of 150,000 doses was distributed Sunday to the south’s Tipat Halav infant clinics. The Health Ministry hopes to complete the inoculation program in the south within a month. “I urge all parents to bring their children” to the clinics for the vaccine, said German on Sunday, announcing that she would be working from a temporary office in the south to oversee the project. “We’ll spare no effort” to get this done, she promised.

The virus has continued to show up in tests conducted by health officials throughout the south, raising growing concern over an uncontrolled outbreak that could reach all parts of the country – and spread outside Israel’s borders.

Israeli children are vaccinated as part of the regular national infant vaccination program, and are in no danger from the live strain in the new vaccine. Authorities decided on using a live virus in order to guarantee that the degraded, vaccinating strain spread quickly from the children to their surroundings, including family members and friends, thus vaccinating the general population.

Health officials said that there is a less than one in a million chance that an adult exposed to the vaccine will develop the paralytic disease, with the risk dropping even more for healthy adults. To lower the possibility of an outbreak of the virus’ paralytic symptoms even further, the Health Ministry will not give the vaccine to children who have family members with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients or HIV carriers.

The World Health Organization praised the move as “necessary.”

The Bedouin city of Rahat, southern Israel, where polio was detected in May 2013 in samples from sewage water. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The Bedouin city of Rahat, southern Israel, where polio was detected in May 2013 in samples from sewage water. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Health officials emphasized over the weekend that children who receive the vaccine must maintain a high level of hygiene in the weeks following the ingestion of the dose, as the weakened virus will remain live in their stools.

One person in every 200 who contracts the virus at its full strength suffers damage to their nervous system that leads to various 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.