Prospective flu vaccine shortage vexes Israel amid global race for supplies
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Prospective flu vaccine shortage vexes Israel amid global race for supplies

Officials worried about simultaneous wave of coronavirus and influenza infections in winter; increased uptake expected for flu jabs, but health funds say there’s not enough supply

A man receives a swine flu vaccine at a medical center in Jerusalem, December 20, 2009 (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
A man receives a swine flu vaccine at a medical center in Jerusalem, December 20, 2009 (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Israel could face a shortage of flu vaccines this winter as countries around the globe clamor for supplies amid fears of a simultaneous wave of coronavirus and influenza infections, according to a television report on Tuesday.

According to the Channel 12 report, Israel has ordered around 6 million doses of the vaccine, three times the usual amount, due to expectations that many more people than usual will request inoculation.

However, health officials are concerned that the country will not be able to secure the full quantity of vaccines, and as a result, millions may not be protected.

According to the report, the four health funds in the country submit orders for the flu vaccine based on the numbers they predict will want it — previous years showed an uptake of around 2 million people.

Israelis line up for flu shots on December 25, 2015 during an outbreak of swine flu (FLASH90)

Last December, then-health minister Yaakov Litzman said Israel should set up a factory to produce vaccines, in light of shortages in times of need. The initiative was reportedly supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but has not yet been given the go-ahead.

As a result, Israel is fully dependent on imports for vaccines and last year faced shortages during a deadly flu season caused by a particularly virulent and aggressive strain.

“Our working assumption is that influenza and the coronavirus will spread at the same time this winter,” said Nissim Alon, CEO of Leumit health fund, to Channel 12.

“Israelis expect to be able to carry on with their lives as usual and therefore we are facing a medical and logistical challenge we never knew existed. Every year we order flu vaccines according to the previous year’s estimate, and this time we have ordered three times as much. We hope that they will indeed come to Israel and not ‘be stolen’ by other countries. Another thing is that the cost of vaccines has doubled.”

At the height of the wave of coronavirus infections earlier this year, some countries were accused of seizing medical supplies as they grappled with shortages.

The chief nursing officer at the Meuhedet health fund expressed concerns that shortages could lead to only the most vulnerable receiving the vaccines.

“We have ordered half a million flu vaccines. We expect the public to be more responsive to the need to vaccinate,” said Mali Kusha. “We have heard the health minister say that vaccines could be targeted to the at-risk populations only, but we hope we will not reach this situation and we will be able to inoculate a larger portion of the population. It is not going to be a normal winter in view of the anticipated flu and coronavirus.”

The Clalit health fund said it had ordered two million doses of the vaccine, and Maccabi requested more than a million.

The Health Ministry responded to the report, saying: “This year, the Health Ministry has ordered more influenza vaccines for the upcoming season compared to previous years… We’re now expecting over 2.1 million vaccines to arrive, and the ministry is trying to increase its vaccine inventory as much as possible.”

Experts in Israel and overseas have also warned that a drop in child vaccination rates, with parents were increasingly hesitant to go to hospitals and health clinics for fear of the coronavirus, could open the door for  more simultaneous virus outbreaks, with particular fears regarding measles.

Illustrative: A baby at a ‘Tipat Chalav’ family health center on March 5, 2019. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

The problem of falling immunization rates was deepening worldwide, a top WHO official told the Kan public broadcaster.

“This is very worrying, and it is not only Israel. We are getting reports at the WHO from across the world that immunization services are affected,” Ann Lindstrand, the head of the WHO’s immunization program, said.

“Measles was a concern of ours already before COVID-19,” she noted. “In 2019 we had more cases and more outbreaks than in a very long time.

Several countries, including Israel and the US, suffered from a severe outbreak of measles last year, which resulted in fatalities.

Measles is considered the most contagious of all infectious diseases. The virus causes severe flu-like symptoms and a characteristic bumpy rash, but in certain cases, complications that affect the respiratory and nervous systems can be life-threatening. Measles was all but eradicated in 2000, but has made a comeback largely due to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children due to false anti-vaccine propaganda.

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