Israelis scramble for flu vaccine as deaths from aggressive virus mount

Health services report multifold increase in demand for protection against disease amid early season surge in those seriously stricken by illness

Illustrative photo of a vaccination. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a vaccination. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Health organizations have seen a surge of people showing up for flu vaccinations in the wake of four deaths within the past week and dozens of others who have recently been hospitalized with serious illness from the virus.

Eleven people have died since the beginning of the 2018-2019 flu season and 98 are in hospitals in serious condition, according to Health Ministry figures.

At least nine of the fatalities were caused by complications of swine flu, Haaretz reported Wednesday.

Last winter 54 people were taken seriously ill by flu and 17 died.

The country’s three largest health organizations have all reported a jump in the number of people seeking a vaccine. The Clalit Health Services said some 18,000 people were vaccinated just on Wednesday, adding to the 900,000 who have already been vaccinated.

Maccabi Health Services reported that daily figures for vaccinations had jumped from around 2,200 to 10,000. Meuhedet said that 6,000 people were vaccinated Wednesday compared to an average of just 1,600 on proceeding days.

Overall vaccination figures for November and December remain lower than previous years, the Haaretz report said.

Health Ministry deputy director general Itamar Grotto said the lower number of vaccinations was not significant enough to have caused the severity of illnesses the country is experiencing, and pointed to another possible cause.

This year, he said, swine flu, known technically as H1N1, made a much earlier appearance than usual in the season.

“That could be the reason for the rise in cases, since contrary to other strains, where even those who don’t get vaccinated are exposed to them and become vaccinated naturally, there is a population that has still not been exposed to it [swine flu] — in particular among the younger population,” Grotto said.

The current situation has all the characteristics usually found at the height of the flu season which usually comes around the end of January, he noted. It was too early, he said, to know if this year the peak came early or if worse was yet to come.

“We have no way of knowing if it will still go up. We are preparing for a complicated winter,” Grotto said.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman after getting his flu vaccination at the Efrata Elementary School in Jerusalem, on October 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Health Ministry figures show that so far this year 1.4 million people have been vaccinated, 15.7 percent of the population, compared to 17.2% at the same time last year. Among those aged 65 or higher, 51% have got the vaccine, compared to 55% the year before. Among children aged six months to five years, 13% have been vaccinated compared to 15% for the same period last year, the report said.

On Wednesday an 18-month-old girl died of complications of the flu at Rehovot’s Kaplan Medical Center. The child arrived at the hospital unconscious and in critical condition. Doctors were forced to declare the girl’s death shortly after her arrival. Her blood test showed that she had contracted the flu.

Her death came after on Tuesday a 19-year-old man at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and a 14-year-old girl at Beersheba’s Sheba Medical Center died as a result of flu complications. A man, 50, also died from the disease at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital, Haaretz reported.

Also Wednesday, a month-old baby apparently suffering from the flu virus was rushed to Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in critical condition. Doctors were able to stabilize the boy.

One of those who remains hospitalized in critical condition is a man in his 40s who has no previous medical history that would make him more susceptible to the disease. His case has led doctors to warn that anyone is at risk and urge the public to be vaccinated, the Ynet news website reported.

The Health Ministry on Tuesday also called on Israelis to get vaccinated against the flu. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, 71, the most senior official at the ministry, each year makes a public show of going to get a flu jab.

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