Israel sounds alarm on measles after El Al flight attendant, boy slip into comas
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Child vaccination centers open for extra hours next week

Israel sounds alarm on measles after El Al flight attendant, boy slip into comas

Both patients feared to have suffered brain damage; as disease spreads, report warns some 45,000 Israeli kids may not be vaccinated

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

Health officials on Thursday were sounding the alarm on the sprawling outbreak of measles that has seen thousands of cases nationwide in the past year, after a flight attendant and a 10-year-old boy were believed to have suffered irreversible brain damage from the highly contagious disease, and as some 45,000 Israeli children reportedly remained unvaccinated.

The condition of the El Al worker who was hospitalized earlier this month with the measles has deteriorated, Hebrew media reported on Thursday. She is in a coma, has been moved to an isolated intensive care unit, and has suffered suspected brain damage.

The young boy has also been hospitalized at Schneider Medical Center in Petah Tikva with suspected brain damage and is attached to a ventilator, according to television reports.

The El Al flight attendant, 43, was admitted to a hospital two weeks ago after contracting the disease on a flight from New York. She is suffering from meningoencephalitis — a complication of the measles virus that is similar to having both meningitis and encephalitis, respectively infections or inflammations of the lining of the brain and the brain itself.

The woman was working on board El AL flight 002 from John F. Kennedy Airport to Tel Aviv on March 26 and the Health Ministry advised all travelers on that flight to immediately seek medical care if they develop symptoms of the measles.

Blood tests revealed that the El AL flight attendant had been vaccinated with only one shot against measles instead of the two inoculations recommended for her age group. Consequently, El Al instructed all flight attendants to get measles shots.

A sign warns people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg on April 10, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

“The damage is very serious,” Dr. Avi Lin, deputy director of Meir Hospital, told the Ynet news site. “We continue to evaluate her situation every day and hope for the best.”

Earlier this week, an internal Health Ministry document revealed that two million Israelis are partially or not vaccinated, according to Channel 13. That figure likely includes those born between 1957 and 1977 who require two booster shots to be fully inoculated against the disease, which the ministry has not mandated.

Measles is making a resurgence in Israel due primarily to parents not inoculating their children. Up to 45,000 children, mostly from ultra-Orthodox families, are not vaccinated at all, Channel 12 news reported Thursday. Those children are aged 1-6 years old and the Health Ministry will reach out to their families, according to the report.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said it would keep child healthcare centers open throughout the Passover holiday next week, when children are on vacation, in a coordinated drive to step up vaccination rates.

A nurse prepares the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York, on April 5, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

“If everybody had been vaccinated as required we would not be in this situation,” Prof. Sigal Sedetzki, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, told Channel 12.

Sedetzki said the ultra-Orthodox in particular had “several pockets” within the community that do not vaccinate. He urged parents to take their children to clinics around the country that are being kept open over the Passover holiday in order to administer the vaccinations.

The Health Ministry is also urging Israelis to make sure that they are vaccinated before flying overseas, Channel 13 reported Thursday.

Israel has seen an outbreak of measles in the past year, recording 3,600 cases between March 2018 and February 2019, according to the ministry.

Infections have mostly centered on the country’s ultra-Orthodox community, where inoculation rates have generally been lower than the rest of the population.

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. A month later, an 82-year-old woman became the second fatality.

In New York, too, officials are struggling to contain a swelling number of measles cases centered in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods while battling lawsuits over their efforts to require vaccinations. Health officials have confirmed 329 cases of measles in New York City and 184 cases in nearby Rockland County since the outbreak began in October.

The measles cases in Rockland and in Brooklyn have been traced to unvaccinated members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who traveled to Israel. Orthodox Jewish leaders say a small faction of vaccine opponents in the community has allowed the disease to spread.

AP contributed to this report.

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