60,000 more children vaccinated as polio spreads

Total number of those vaccinated stands at 242,000; traces of the virus detected in southern city of Ofakim

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

Some 60,000 Israeli children were vaccinated on Wednesday against the polio virus, bringing the total number of those vaccinated to 242,000.

The vaccinations will continue on Thursday, and clinics are expected to be open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

The virus has been spreading throughout the country, with traces of polio detected on Wednesday at a sewage treatment facility in the southern city of Ofakim. On Tuesday, the virus was discovered in Baqa al-Gharbiya in northern Israel.

A petition filed this week with the High Court of Justice demanded that the government stop its current campaign of vaccinating children against polio, claiming that, among other things, the solution could be a lot more dangerous than the problem itself. The state has until Thursday to respond to the petition.

Yaakov Gurman, director of the Izun Hozer organization, which filed the petition, told The Times of Israel that the risks inherent in the few samples of the wild strain polio virus discovered in several places in Israel could be multiplied many times over once a million kids are given the oral polio vaccine (OPV) — essentially a weakened form of polio that, like most inoculations, introduces the virus and lets the body build up a resistance by developing the antibodies needed to battle a full-on invasion of polio.

“One of the reasons they stopped inoculating children with OPV in 2005 was because it caused an outbreak of polio, with dozens contracting the disease each year,” said Gurman. “The current situation is even worse, because the reconstituted OPV uses a somewhat different formula, and has never been used in Western countries.”

In its High Court petition, the Izun Hozer group alleges that the use of the oral vaccine is dangerous. Part of the strategy, said New York pediatrician and author Dr. Stuart Ditchek, is to actually spread the disease around in order to “infect” others who have not taken the vaccine.

“Historically, wild polio virus exposures have been put to rest by utilizing the strategy of implementing the live oral polio vaccine,” Ditchek told The Times of Israel. “By using oral polio vaccine, the recipient actually sheds small amounts of live polio virus and passes on the exposure to others by fecal-oral route. Simply put, when you give one child the OPV, three others will likely also receive it as the virus is shed in stool and passed on to others.”

The strategy is tried and true and has successfully tamped outbreaks in many areas, said Ditchek, but Izun Hozer claims in its petition that the program is risky at best and dangerous at worst.

“Whatever the risk there is of a wild strain of polio in the environment, all medical authorities agree that the worst damage could be that several dozen people may get infected, and it is not at all clear that they will suffer from the worst consequences of the disease,” said Gurman. “Now, with the virus in the bodies of a million children, polio will be spread far and wide. What will happen if the disease mutates and gets out into the environment? If the authorities are worried about a plague, that’s the one to worry about.”

Endangering Israelis in this way, he added, violates Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity, and laws on the rights of patients, Gurman added.

In a statement, the Health Ministry said, “Israel is a democratic state in which any citizen is free to appeal to the High Court on any issue. Doctors throughout the entire health system in Israel have accepted that steps need to be taken to prevent an outbreak of polio and to ensure the public’s health. The reasons for our decision and our answers to the specific points raised in the petition will be presented in court. We are sure that the court will agree with us that there was a great need to inoculate Israeli children against polio.”

Ditchek agrees. “The benefits of using OPV by far outweigh the risks in this scenario, thus the recommendation,” he said. “The recommendation being implemented in Israel is smart and guided by advisement of the [US] Centers for Disease Control. The group in the lawsuit simply disregards the CDC as an honest adviser,” and thereby risks the public’s health, he said. “There is no documentation scientifically of their concerns.”

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