IDF rushes to complete measles vaccinations after soldier contracts virus

Army officials working to track hundreds of soldiers who were in contact with infected servicewoman, amid outbreak caused by parents who refuse to vaccinate their children

Illustrative photo of IDF soldiers (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Several hundred Israel Defense Forces soldiers who serve in the army’s Kirya headquarters base in Tel Aviv are at risk of carrying the measles virus, according to the army.

The military was working to contact the soldiers, who were all in the vicinity of a female soldier who arrived at the Kirya’s medical clinic with measles symptoms last week.

Tests revealed Thursday that the soldier had contracted measles, which is making a major comeback in Israel amid a decline in some communities of parents vaccinating their children.

The army issued a statement saying the vast majority of the soldiers who had been in the sick soldier’s proximity were vaccinated, but that the army was taking precautions to minimize the chance of the virus spreading through the military’s ranks.

“After the soldier’s diagnosis was confirmed today, the Military Health Department [of the IDF’s Medical Corps] and the Kirya clinic are contacting all the soldiers who came into contact with the sick person to ascertain their vaccination status and ensure completion of vaccination as necessary,” the army’s Technology and Logistics Division, which oversees the Medical Corps, said Sunday.

Army medical officials noted that the vast majority of serving IDF soldiers were born after 1978, the year of birth of the first cohort of Israeli children to receive the current two-step vaccination regimen against measles. With the latest outbreak, officials added, the army has been taking special care to vaccinate soldiers who may not have properly completed their vaccinations as children.

Illustrative: A patient getting a measles vaccination in Jerusalem in November, 2018. (courtesy Health Ministry)

The next such vaccination push will take place on Wednesday, when vaccines will be administered in seven army bases nationwide.

Israel has been battling a rash of measles infections that has mostly centered on the country’s ultra-Orthodox community, where inoculation rates have generally been low. In November, an 18-month-old toddler in Jerusalem died of the disease, the first recorded death from measles in Israel in the past 15 years.

Last Wednesday a 16-month-old girl was hospitalized in critical condition suffering from meningitis and pneumonia as the result of a measles infection. The toddler was being treated at the pediatric intensive care unit at the Emek Medical Center in northern Israel.

Authorities were checking if the girl, who is from an ultra-Orthodox family, may have contracted the disease during a visit to relatives in Jerusalem. According to news reports, the girl was not immunized.

Illustrative: Baby suffering from measles (CC BY CDC Global, Flickr)

The lower vaccination rates in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have been attributed to a faulty perception that fervently religious Jews are protected from infection by the insulated nature of their communities, as well as discredited rumors that the life-saving practice is dangerous.

The outbreak of measles in Israel has been blamed for infections in the religious Jewish communities of New York and London, which are thought to have started when unvaccinated residents visited Israel, contracted the disease there and brought it back to their communities.

Concerns about the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine surfaced in 1998, when a British study, since discredited, linked it with autism. The study was found to be a fraud and the autism link was debunked, but vaccination rates have dropped in some countries and communities, as concerned parents have prevented children receiving their shots.

With more than 2,000 Israelis contracting the disease this year, senior officials in several hospitals have accused the Health Ministry of failing to contain the epidemic, saying it was “unreasonable” to expect hospitals to locate all the people who have been in contact with each patient and calling for a nationwide vaccination campaign to immunize the entire population.

They also said there aren’t enough isolation rooms for all the measles patients.

The Health Ministry responded to the report by blaming the hospitals for the lack of isolation rooms and for failing to adequately vaccinate their own employees.

Illustrative. Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine vials, with syringe. (iStock by Getty Images/ Andrey Popov)

Knesset members last month unanimously advanced a bill that would give Israeli authorities the power to sanction parents who do not vaccinate their children and to ban entry to all educational institutions, including kindergartens, for any child or person who has not been vaccinated against a disease when there is a national concern over an outbreak of the illness.

The bill, if authorized in full, would allow the Health Ministry to follow up with children who do not get vaccinations at state-run well-baby clinics and send their parents an official warning if they continue to refuse. Ministry officials could then decide to apply financial sanctions in the form of reduced tax credits and welfare benefits that could add up to a loss of no more than NIS 2,000 (approximately $530) per month.

The outbreak in Israel is part of an international resurgence of the nearly-eliminated virus.

According to Prof. Shai Ashkenazi, director of the Israeli Pediatric Society, measles “was on the cusp of extinction, but, because of a decline in vaccination, has made a big comeback. In Europe, too, in the first half of 2018, there were more than 41,000 incidents of infection with at least 37 deaths.”

On November 29, the UN said measles cases worldwide had jumped more than 30 percent last year compared to 2016, with increases recorded in wealthy European countries like Germany where vaccination coverage has historically been high.

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