Fearing outbreak, ministry to inoculate children in south against polio

Vaccine contains live, weakened virus intended to spread from the children to their surroundings; decision next week over vaccines for all Israel’s kids

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

The Health Ministry on Sunday announced the launch of a major operation to vaccinate children under the age of 9 in the south against polio, after the virus was discovered there in recent months.

Some 150,000 children are to be inoculated from Monday. Next week, the ministry will decide whether to give the vaccines to all children under 9 nationwide.

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, which will be delivered through oral drops, 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 is being 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 Health Minister Yael 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 – though extremely weakened – 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.”

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 contract the virus at its full strength suffer 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.

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