Cases of whooping cough spike among children in Haredi Jerusalem communities

Israel Pediatrics Association and Midwives Association urge Health Ministry to initiate vaccination drives to prevent disease that can kill vulnerable infants

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A baby receives a routine vaccine. (naumoid; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A baby receives a routine vaccine. (naumoid; iStock by Getty Images)

At least 215 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) have been reported to the Health Ministry since January, accounting for a 12-fold increase over the same period in 2022, when there were only 17 cases.

The vast majority of the current cases are in Jerusalem and among Haredim, in communities where vaccination rates are lower than in other populations. Nine cases were identified in the Tel Aviv area.

Pertussis is a highly contagious but preventable disease caused by bacteria that spreads easily through coughing and sneezing. It is especially dangerous for babies, who can experience severe coughing and wheezing, among other symptoms like vomiting, fever, and a runny nose. In the worst cases, apnea (pauses in breathing), cyanosis (turning blue), and death can occur.

For this reason, the Israel Pediatrics Association issued a letter on June 1 to Health Minister Moshe Arbel and Health Ministry General Director Moshe Bar Siman Tov urging them to urgently address the outbreak by sending mobile vaccination units to neighborhoods where fewer children are vaccinated against the disease.

Vaccination against pertussis involves a series of shots beginning at age two months. Childhood pertussis vaccines end at 13, and adults are advised to get a booster shot after age 18 — especially medical students and healthcare workers. It is also recommended that pregnant women receive the vaccination in their third trimester.

Illustrative: A pregnant woman receives a vaccine at a Maccabi Health vaccination center at the Givatayim Mall, outside of Tel Aviv, August 23, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“This [outbreak] is [due to] a long process of under-vaccination which has been going on here in the recent years since the coronavirus,” Israel Pediatrics Association chair Prof. Zachi Grossman told The Times of Israel.

Grossman attributed this under-vaccination to COVID vaccination fatigue.

“If you look at the national coverage rates — not only the Jerusalem area — you see a decline in the past two years. Not only in Israel. You can see it in the whole Western world…It is probably because of the two major issues associated with COVID vaccines. One was the lack of accessibility to vaccination centers because of the lockdowns and fear of exposure to the virus at hospitals and clinics, and the other was controversies regarding the coronavirus vaccines,” Grossman said.

“All of this had an impact on what we considered in the past to be a stable belief in regular childhood vaccinations. The belief was probably not as stable as we’d postulated,” he said.

Israeli Pediatrics Association president Prof. Zachi Grossman. (Courtesy)

At the same time, Grossman urged the Health Ministry not to ignore the fact that there have historically been other outbreaks of whooping cough, polio and measles in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Some have been caused by outright opposition to vaccinations and the national health system. Grossman, however, believes that a more general root of the problem is the size and living conditions of Haredi families.

“[These neighborhoods] are characterized by inhabitants who live in conditions where contagiousness can happen among children in big families. These are not vaccine-resistant people by ideology. Rather, they have difficulty getting all their children to their well-baby clinic (Tipat Halav) appointments,” Grossman explained.

“That’s where the importance of [mobile] vaccination units comes in. The main thing here is to make the vaccines accessible as much as possible. If we can have food delivered to our doorstep, we can also deliver vaccinations right to people’s homes,” he said.

The Israeli Midwives Association issued a statement advising all pregnant women in weeks 27-36 to get a pertussis vaccination.

“It is critical to get the vaccine toward the end of the pregnancy to protect the baby as it exits the womb into the air of the world. The protection is provided by the antibodies against whooping cough that pass through the placenta and protect the baby for the first four months of its life.”

“The vaccination is safe for both mother and baby,” the statement noted.

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