Vaccination campaign launched in Orthodox neighborhoods amid measles outbreak

Health ministry unveils ‘intensive measures’ to combat contagious disease; will ban unvaccinated visitors from some ‘sensitive’ hospital wards

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An child is vaccinated at a Tipat Halav clinic in Jerusalem on August 18, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An child is vaccinated at a Tipat Halav clinic in Jerusalem on August 18, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Sunday launched a campaign to ban unvaccinated visitors from some hospital wards and increase vaccination rates in unprotected communities around Jerusalem to combat one of Israel’s worst measles outbreaks in decades.

The ministry said it will be refusing access to “sensitive” departments of hospitals to visitors who are not immunized against the disease. These wards include intensive care and oncology.

The ministry said in a statement that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman approved the “intensive measures” that would be introduced in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

Starting Monday, Tipat Halav perinatal care centers in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot, Givat Shaul, Ramat Eshkol, Romema, Sanhedria and Ramat Shlomo will extend their opening hours until 8 p.m. every day for the next two weeks. Care centers in in Beit Shemesh and Beitar Illit will also be open late.

In addition, mobile vaccination clinics will be sent to the neighborhoods that are home to the largest spread of known infections — 753 have been recorded in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox communities alone — and where the immunization rate is around 50 percent.

Measles has made an aggressive return this year in Israel, with over 1,300 cases reported since the beginning of 2018, according to Health Ministry figures.

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

The low vaccination rates in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have been attributed to a faulty perception that fervently religious Jews are protected from infection by the insulated nature of their communities, as well as discredited rumors that the life-saving practice is dangerous.

The ministry said officials were considering further measures to combat the outbreak, including barring unvaccinated people from schools.

The statement said Litzman approved funds for additional staffing to support the campaign, and backed legislation that would increase the ministry’s scope of immunization.

According to Hadashot news on Sunday night, some 5 percent to 10 percent of those infected have been vaccinated.

On Sunday, after a child in the south Jerusalem area of Arnona, a neighborhood that is not ultra-Orthodox, was diagnosed with measles, the daycare center she attended, and another adjacent to it were closed, and the parent body was told to vaccinate their children — or give them boosters, because of the exposure. The local health clinic was overcrowded with children awaiting their shots.

Also on Sunday, two high school seniors in then northern city of Katzrin were diagnosed with measles. According to reports, neither of the teens had been vaccinated.

Last week, an 18-month-old toddler died of measles in Jerusalem, the first recorded death from the disease in Israel in 15 years. According to officials at the Shaare Zedek Hospital, the infant was not vaccinated against the virulently contagious disease.

The measles outbreak in Israel has spread to both London and New York in recent weeks.

On Friday, New York City’s Health Department said 17 kids in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park had recently contracted the disease.

Illustrative: Newborn baby suffering from measles. (iStock by Getty Images/andriano_cz)

The department said the initial cases reported in New York were acquired by children on a recent visit to Israel.

In London’s Stanford Hill neighborhood, several cases of measles have been reported in recent days. UK health authorities have not released official numbers, though reports in local media said that “several” children in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood had contracted the disease.

World Health Organization data shows measles kills about 134,000 children a year.

Concerns about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine surfaced in 1998, when a British study, since discredited, linked it with autism. The study was found to be a fraud and the autism link was debunked, but vaccination rates have dropped in some countries, as concerned parents have prevented children receiving their shots.

According to Prof. Shai Ashkenazi, director of the Israeli Pediatric Society, measles “was on the cusp of extinction, but, because of a decline in vaccination, has made a big comeback. In Europe, too, in the first half of 2018, there were more than 41,000 incidents of infection with at least 37 deaths.”

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