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In wake of polio outbreak, baby vaccine rate rises to 96%

Authorities have been urging vaccination since March, when first case in 34 years was diagnosed; parents of babies respond well, but less so for older kids

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

Illustrative image: A baby receives a vaccine (Marina Demidiuk via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: A baby receives a vaccine (Marina Demidiuk via iStock by Getty Images)

Four months after polio was found in Israel, health authorities have succeeded in significantly increasing the vaccination rate among babies, and there is now close to blanket coverage.

Uptake of the most important polio shots, namely the killed vaccine administered between six and 18 months, stood at 81 percent in March. Then, the first clinical polio case in 34 years was found, in an unvaccinated 4-year-old girl. She was hospitalized in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, then released to a specialist hospital, after the virus harmed her muscles.

This diagnosis was followed by several children testing positive for the virus. They remained asymptomatic.

While the number of cases was small, the World Health Organization said they constituted an outbreak, as developed countries are expected to be totally polio-free and any diagnosed cases raises concerns of spread.

The Health Ministry launched an intense vaccination campaign, which is now coming to an end. It has raised the vaccination rate among babies to 96%, which experts say significantly strengthens defense against the virus nationwide. There have been no cases reported in recent weeks.

“The vaccination campaign has gone very well, and it has increased protection against the disease in a way that was much needed,” Dr. Michal Shtein, director of the pediatric infectious diseases unit at Sheba Medical Center, told The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image: An child receives an oral polio vaccine, 18 August 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Today, there is still a vulnerability to polio in Israel, but the risk of a specific person getting polio is low,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, Hebrew University epidemiologist and chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “There is now better protection of toddlers, who can have a significant role in spreading polio.”

The Health Ministry took a two-pronged approach to boosting immunity. One was a push to increase take-up of the main polio vaccine, which is a killed vaccine — meaning it contains no live virus.

The second prong was to promote the live — or attenuated — vaccine, which was reintroduced to Israel in 2013 as an extra line of defense. While the killed vaccine protects recipients against disease if they encounter the virus, the attenuated vaccine — given as oral drops — stops them from spreading the virus, and is therefore seen as a tool for community protection.

Dr. Hagai Levine of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem via Zman Israel)

Among babies under 18 months, take-up of the attenuated vaccine rose from 51% in April to 79% today.

But parents remained sluggish in taking older age groups to receive the drops. Among children aged 18 months to 9.5 years, take-up rose from 69% to 73%. Health authorities also sought to encourage parents of children aged 9.5 to 17 to give them boosters of the attenuated vaccine, but take-up in that group only rose from 3% to 7%.

“This part of the campaign was a failure,” Levine said. “You could conclude that it was unrealistic, and the focus should have remained on the younger age groups and not tried to extend to older children.”

Assessing the overall response to the outbreak, Levine added: “There has been progress, but we should be aware that this is a disease that you aim to eradicate totally, and what we saw recently illustrates that that is not yet the situation. We are not completely over this, and we are still susceptible.”

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