Polio found in the north
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Polio found in the north

Samples taken in Wadi Ara before commencement of nationwide vaccination campaign reveal traces of virus

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

President Shimon Peres (right), watches as a medical worker administers a dose of polio vaccine to a young boy at a clinic in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
President Shimon Peres (right), watches as a medical worker administers a dose of polio vaccine to a young boy at a clinic in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

The wild polio virus that has been spreading in Israel at least since May has been identified in sewage samples taken in the Wadi Ara area in the southern Galilee. The location marks the northernmost point yet identified for the spread of the virus. Last week it was confirmed in a sewage plant in Baqa al-Gharbiya, near Netanya.

According to the Health Ministry, the sample was taken before the launch on August 18 of a nationwide vaccination effort against the virus.

The Health Ministry announced it had vaccinated 65,000 children on Monday, raising the total number of children vaccinated in the ongoing campaign to some 465,000.

“Our findings point to a steady process of contagion and spread,” the ministry said in a statement earlier this month. “The results of our tests 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 children born after January 1, 2004, to their nearest Tipat Halav children’s clinic to get vaccinated.

“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 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 campaign began in the south of the country 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.

Authorities decided to use an orally administered weakened live virus in order to guarantee that the degraded vaccinating strain, which builds antibodies in the digestive system, will spread from the children to their surroundings, quickly immunizing the general population. Israeli children are vaccinated against polio as part of the regular national infant vaccination program, and are in no danger from the live strain used in the new vaccine, officials have said.

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 hundreds of thousands as late as two decades ago to just 223 cases in 2012.

The last outbreak of polio in Israel occurred in 1988. Sixteen Israelis suffered paralysis in that outbreak, which was contained in a national vaccination effort similar to the one currently under implementation.

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