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Analysis

Israel using ‘vaccination nation’ chops to fight monkeypox, doctor says

Country excelling in using a small supply of vaccines to maximum effect, and protecting the most vulnerable, says chairman of Israel’s LGBT Medical Association

Nathan Jeffay

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

An Israeli man receives a vaccine against monkeypox, administered by Maccabi Healthcare Services. (Maccabi Healthcare Services)
An Israeli man receives a vaccine against monkeypox, administered by Maccabi Healthcare Services. (Maccabi Healthcare Services)

After earning a name as a “vaccination nation” for its aggressive campaign to combat coronavirus, Israel has been running an intense drive to protect citizens who are most at risk from monkeypox.

Just over 2,000 people have received monkeypox vaccines, since their rollout in early August, which medical professionals say reflects a far bigger achievement than the number suggests.

That is because, unlike the attempt to vaccinate everyone for COVID, the strategy for monkeypox is to immunize only those considered at significant risk. And so, each time someone receives a vaccine, it is a success in pinpointed preventative health.

“The vaccination push is proving successful, and the decision to use the limited supply of vaccines for those most at risk was a very good one,” Dr. Gal Wagner, chairman of Israel’s LGBT Medical Association, told The Times of Israel.

High tech health systems have been key, he said, adding that the fight against the outbreak has been further bolstered by risk-minimization in the LGBT community, and good relations between this community and government — especially the health minister, who is a gay man.

Israel reported its first monkeypox case in May — a man who had returned from abroad — and to date has seen 203 cases. The virus is contagious, and while often mild, can cause serious illness.

Around 5,000 vaccines have arrived so far, and Israel is expected to get 5,000 more in the next few weeks. As cases are almost exclusively among men who have sex with men (MSM), vaccines are targeting those among this demographic who are considered at the highest risk.

The first shipment of monkeypox doses arrives in Israel, July 27, 2022. (Health Ministry)

They are being given to men who have had two sexually transmitted diseases since early 2021, or who are HIV-positive, or who are taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, which are drugs to protect them from HIV.

Israel’s unusually high-tech national medical record keeping was key to its COVID campaign, and has propelled the monkeypox drive, said Wagner, who heads a Pride Clinic run by the Clalit healthcare provider in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Gal Wagner, chairman of Israel’s LGBT Medical Association. (courtesy of Dr. Gal Wagner)

Specifically, it transformed the task of identifying and reaching out to the most at-risk Israelis from a needle-in-haystack challenge to one of pressing a few buttons.

“This record-keeping really, really helped the situation,” said Wagner. “The computers tell us exactly who is receiving pre-exposure prophylaxis, who had two STDs and so on. You just press the button, and approve automatically for these people to get invitations for vaccinations.

“We are doing well. Numbers are rising, but not a lot, and this is due to several factors beyond vaccination. In the LGBT community, people are aware of risks and are reducing them, for example, through using condoms and by reducing numbers of partners. I hear this from my patients, and I hear this from people who now aren’t going to parties. Some sex parties and saunas have closed temporarily,” he said.

“The fact that the health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, is a gay person has really helped. And perhaps the main reason for success is the good communication we have between the Health Ministry, LGBT organizations, and health organizations. All government publicity was discussed with LGBT physicians and organizations, and from the very start, the communication has been good, which has made a big difference.”

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