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Polio vaccine campaign expanding across country amid fears of spread

Health Ministry says nine cases diagnosed so far in Jerusalem area; drive to expand nationwide to children up to 6, with those aged 7-17 eligible after Passover

A child is given an oral vaccine for polio in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, on September 10 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A child is given an oral vaccine for polio in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, on September 10 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said that it will expand its campaign urging parents to ensure their children are up to date on polio vaccines on Thursday amid fears of an outbreak.

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

So far, nine cases of polio have been diagnosed in the Jerusalem area in a recent outbreak, the ministry said.

Traces of the disease have also been found in the sewage system in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Tiberias and Modiin Illit.

The Health Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that its ongoing campaign will now be expanding beyond Jerusalem and rolling out nationwide to all children up to age 6.

Following Passover, it said, the campaign will expand to those ages 7-17.

So far, the ministry said, close to 24,000 people have been vaccinated since it launched the campaign, aimed at ensuring that children have received all doses of the vaccine in case they may have not completed the full course required for protection.

Like much of the world, Israel administers polio vaccines — spread out in multiple doses — to children as part of its standard vaccine regimen. Concerns have risen that some children born between 2005 and 2013 did not receive all of the necessary doses.

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.

Last week, the Jerusalem-centered outbreak has prompted Israel’s return to the World Health Organization’s list of polio “outbreak countries.”

Boxes of polio vaccine in a warehouse. (Courtesy: DHL via Health Ministry)

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.

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, including in 2013, but have not resulted in any clinical cases for several decades until now.

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