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Jerusalem polio cases put Israel back on WHO ‘outbreak countries’ list

With six confirmed and two suspected cases, health officials are ramping up a vaccination push amid fears of a wider outbreak

A child is inoculated with the oral polio vaccine at a children's health clinic in Jerusalem in 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A child is inoculated with the oral polio vaccine at a children's health clinic in Jerusalem in 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A polio outbreak centered in Jerusalem has prompted Israel’s return to the World Health Organization’s list of polio “outbreak countries.”

Israel now appears along with 28 other countries on the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s list of countries with polio outbreaks, after being declared polio-free in 1988. Nations including Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia and Ukraine are also on the list of outbreak countries — places where the virus was halted but has resurfaced — while Afghanistan and Pakistan are considered endemic countries.

Last month, the first case of polio in more than 30 years was confirmed in Jerusalem, spurring deep concerns and a renewed vaccination drive.

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, released last week, there have been six confirmed polio cases, all among unvaccinated patients. In addition, there is a high likelihood of another case in an unvaccinated child, and an eighth potential case that is being investigated. Traces of the disease have also been found in the sewage system in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Tiberias and Modiin Illit.

Over the past month, more than 18,000 children in the Jerusalem area have received a polio vaccine dose as part of the ministry’s push to reach those who were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

Like much of the world, Israel administers polio vaccines — spread out in multiple doses — to children as part of its standard vaccine regimen.

Polio spreads mostly from person to person or through contaminated water. It attacks the nervous system and can sometimes paralyze people within hours. The disease mostly affects children under 5 and has been largely wiped out in wealthy countries.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s public health director, explained last week that during the years 2005-2013, polio vaccinations were scaled back as the disease was vanquished in the country and many babies did not get all the necessary doses.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem about new coronavirus restrictions, December 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We are definitely seeing an outbreak of polio in Israel,” Alroy-Preis said. “It reaches unvaccinated pockets and is spreading.”

One Jerusalem child who was recently diagnosed with polio has weakness and paralysis on one side, she reported. “That is just the tip of the iceberg, under which there are many other infected children,” she assessed.

Disease experts have warned of the real prospect of a resurgence of polio cases — in manageable numbers but enough to leave some children with long-term damage.

Traces of the virus have occasionally been found in sewage samples in Israel, but have not resulted in any clinical cases for several decades.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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