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EU studying Arab Israelis as a paragon of child vaccination, to help Europe

With inoculation rates so high — 96% for HPV — that they exceed those of Jewish Israelis, community is a rarity among disadvantaged populations

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Nurses vaccinating a child (TAO EDGE via iStock by Getty Images)
Nurses vaccinating a child (TAO EDGE via iStock by Getty Images)

Israel’s Arab population is being studied as a vaccine success story by an international project aiming to boost inoculation rates among disadvantaged populations.

The newly launched five-year European Union program is focused on childhood vaccinations, not COVID-19 shots, though its directors say that initial observations will help to guide coronavirus vaccination campaigns.

The project includes an analysis of health policy in the Arab Israeli community because of its very high take-up rate. Around 96 percent of Arab parents agree to their children taking the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a good yardstick of general child vaccination levels. By contrast, 54% of Jewish parents consent.

“It would be widely expected that because my community, the Arab community, is socially disadvantaged, vaccine rates would be low, but they are actually very high,” said Jumanah Essa-Hadad, a health researcher at Bar Ilan University who is taking a prominent role in  the research. “We’re aiming to understand what leads to this and allow others to benefit from the insights.”

Lines of inquiry will include the high trust of mothers in doctors, and the impact of Israel’s health system. “Mothers just don’t question vaccination and have high levels of respect for doctors, who are respected and trusted figures,” Essa-Hadad told The Times of Israel, adding that easy access to vaccines, which are offered in local clinics and at schools, is also thought to contribute to the success story.

Epidemiologist Prof. Michael Edelstein, Essa-Hadad’s colleague, said: “The reason we are studying this community is that we want to understand what enables a disadvantaged community to achieve such high vaccine coverage — what motivates and enables people — and understand and translate these factors to other communities that are also disadvantaged but have low vaccine coverage.”

An Israeli Arab health care professional prepares a vaccine (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

He noted the dissonance in the fact that Arab Israelis have very high take-up of childhood vaccines but the adults in the community have been more hesitant to take coronavirus shots, and lag behind Jewish counterparts. He did not yet have an explanation but said the discrepancy would be investigated, possibly leading to policy recommendations.

The objective of the EU program is to take insights gained in Israel and two other countries that offer positive lessons from minority communities, to benefit specific under-vaccinated populations.

The other highly vaccinated disadvantaged communities are the Bangladeshi community in the United Kingdom and the Somali community in Finland. The aim is to take lessons learned from them and Arab Israelis to significantly boost vaccine uptake among refugees and migrants in Greece, adolescents of Turkish and Moroccan origins in the Netherlands, Ukrainian economic migrants in Poland, and Roma populations in Slovakia.

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