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In apparent world first, Health Ministry backs vaccination of at-risk children

Decision still requires final approval, comes amid rising morbidity among Israelis under 16 years old

Illustrative: A young boy receives the coronavirus shot at a vaccine center in Jerusalem, on January 3, 2021. (Shalva)
Illustrative: A young boy receives the coronavirus shot at a vaccine center in Jerusalem, on January 3, 2021. (Shalva)

In what appears to be a world first, the Health Ministry on Tuesday issued a directive in favor of vaccinating children under the age of 16 who are at high risk of developing serious symptoms if they contract COVID-19.

The decision still must receive final approval from Dr. Boaz Lev, the health official tasked with delineating priority groups for the coronavirus vaccine. It comes against the backdrop of rising morbidity rates among children in Israel.

The ministry indicated that given the rising contagion levels, the risks of not vaccinating at-risk children outweighed the dangers stemming from the insufficient data on vaccinating that age group.

The Pfizer vaccine being overwhelmingly used in Israel has been approved in the US and Europe only for those aged 16 and older. Testing began in October in children as young as 12 and is expected to take several more months.

Recent weeks have seen greater incidents of children being infected, a trend attributed to the British mutation. Children appear to be more susceptible to catching and spreading the mutated virus than they were to the original strain, according to British researchers.

Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem opened the country’s first pediatric intensive care unit specifically designed for coronavirus patients last week.

A vial and a syringe of the Pfizer/BioNTech Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine at the Bordeaux CHU hospital, January 7, 2021. (MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP)

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — the main one used in Israel — has not been tested on children and was approved for emergency use for adults and for teenagers over the age of 16.

Previously, the Health Ministry did not approve inoculating those under 16.

Israel has also approved the vaccination of pregnant women, despite a World Health Organization recommendation against it, following a series of serious coronavirus cases among pregnant women that have been attributed to the British variant.

This week, authorities approved vaccinating 16-18-year-olds to allow students to take their “Bagrut” matriculation exams on time. Those aged 18-40 are still not able to vaccinate, officially, though some have done so in areas with low turnout or where health providers were seeking to use up vaccine doses before they spoil.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday evening that 2,728,154 of Israel’s population of 9.3 million have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 1,315,179 of them having received both shots. Israel leads the world by far in vaccinations per capita.

A health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to a pregnant woman at a Clalit Health Services facility in Tel Aviv, on January 23, 2021(AFP)

Israel passed 4,500 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, with health officials quoted saying they’re stumped by the dire state of morbidity after more than two weeks of tightened lockdown.

The national death toll stood at 4,501, according to the Health Ministry. Monday saw 74 more people die of the disease. More than 25 percent of Israel’s total COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic have been registered this month alone.

The ministry said 8,680 cases were diagnosed Monday, with the test positivity rate rising to 9.8%, one of the highest figures in more than three months.

Total cases have reached 613,286, including 74,323 active cases. Of them, 1,173 are in serious condition, including 414 in critical condition and 313 on ventilators. Tuesday saw more than 160 new serious cases, one of the highest figures since the pandemic began.

Both Channel 12 news and the Kan public broadcaster quoted unnamed Health Ministry officials saying all their predictions have been proven wrong, with several mutated strains that are more infectious becoming more prevalent.

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