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Israel risks losing teenagers to anti-vaxxer influence, warns top doctor

Shlomo Vinker fears inoculation critics slipping into online vacuum left open by authorities, swaying kids; says adult vaccination drive has almost hit ‘ceiling’

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

Illustrative: An Israeli student receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a Leumit vaccination center in Tel Aviv, on January 23, 2021, just after the country rolled out inoculation to everyone aged 16-plus. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli student receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a Leumit vaccination center in Tel Aviv, on January 23, 2021, just after the country rolled out inoculation to everyone aged 16-plus. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Authorities need to up their game with the nation’s teenagers or they could “lose” many of them to anti-vaxxer misinformation just as they become eligible for COVID-19 shots, a leading doctor has said.

In a Thursday interview with The Times of Israel, Prof. Shlomo Vinker spoke of his concern that the country isn’t adequately preparing to win hearts and minds for the teen vaccination drive due to start soon.

Meanwhile, the ongoing effort to vaccinate the 16-plus age group has almost hit its “ceiling,” he said, predicting that only an eighth of the country’s remaining 800,000 unvaccinated adults will agree to get the shots.

Vinker, director of medical services at the Leumit healthcare provider, said that is par for the course, and that vaccination rates so far have exceeded his expectations. But when it comes to kids, he is “worried” that they aren’t yet on the receiving end of a publicity blitz by the Health Ministry.

He argued the ministry should already have high-profile campaigns online and significant initiatives in schools to drum up enthusiasm for vaccines among the age group.

Illustrative: A staff member at a Meuhedet COVID-19 vaccination center in Kfar Habad, central Israel, on February 16, 2021. (Flash90)

Vinker is concerned that anti-vaxxing voices will fill this vacuum.

“If we wait until the vaccinations for children come we will lose the teenagers, because the activists against vaccination are very active now,” he said. “This means we need to not leave the stage open for them.”

His worry is that teens spend a lot of time on the web and form opinions based on online content, and are vulnerable to claims from anti-vaxxers.

In the adult inoculation campaign, he said 87 percent of the 16-plus population was now vaccinated, and tiny numbers were still heading to clinics. It was “very difficult” to convince those who still hadn’t been vaccinated, Vinker said.

Shlomo Vinker, director of medical services at the Leumit healthcare provider (courtesy of Leumit)

“I’m realistic,” he commented. “We’ve almost reached the ceiling for adult vaccination.”

Vinker believes some 100,000 adults can still be convinced, and nurses are still phoning people — especially unvaccinated elderly people — to encourage them. There will be an influx of people who want vaccinations in order to travel or stay in hotels during the summer, he predicted. But he added that many have become entrenched in their position and won’t take shots.

Some are ideological anti-vaxxers, but those are a relatively small number, he said. Many more have developed fears or concerns, often after seeing online content, about the coronavirus vaccines that prevent them from committing to shots.

“There is a disproportionate number from minorities, including the Arab sector, the ultra-Orthodox, and people from the former Soviet Union,” said Vinker. He added that one of the reasons for this is that these populations are often connected to social media that is outside the generally pro-vaccine Israeli mainstream. “For example, older Russian immigrants are often connected to Russian social media, where there are far more critical views on the vaccine,” Vinker stated.

He said that there is no easy formula for persuading people, but said that his staff will continue contacting unvaccinated individuals to try. He commented: “You cannot force anyone, you just have to convince them that vaccination is safe and good for their health and for their day-to-day lives.”

The Health Ministry did not respond to Times of Israel requests for comment on the issue of promoting vaccines among teenagers and among the general population.

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