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Vaccinations drop amid COVID-19 fears, raising specter of fresh measles outbreak

Officials in Israel and abroad see sharp decline in child vaccination rates as parents try to avoid clinics and hospitals; Israel also sees spike in home births for same reason

A woman receives a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, NY, March 27, 2019. (Seth Wenig/AP)
A woman receives a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, NY, March 27, 2019. (Seth Wenig/AP)

As parents become increasingly hesitant to go to hospitals and health clinics for fear of the coronavirus, there has been a drop in child vaccination rates and a surge in home births in the past few weeks, experts in Israel and overseas said Friday.

And they warned that the trend could open the door for a second, simultaneous virus outbreak, with particular fears regarding measles.

In Israel, the Kan public broadcaster reported there was a 30% drop in the administration of the MMRV vaccine in March and the first week of April compared with the same period last year. World Health Organization officials said a similar decline had been seen around the world.

MMRV refers to measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (chicken pox).

The Israeli Health Ministry is urging parents to be sure to go to health clinics to vaccinate their kids, Kan reported.

It said an Israeli association of pediatricians has raised concerns of a potential outbreak of measles, a highly contagious disease that in some cases can cause severe complications, including death, among the unvaccinated or the immunocompromised.

Israeli health clinics are adhering to safety and social distancing rules, and the association called on parents to stick to the normal vaccination schedule.

The problem of falling immunization rates is deepening worldwide, a top WHO official told Kan.

“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.

“Our advice to all countries is to maintain these core health services for as long as possible,” Lindstrand said, urging this to be done while still maintaining safe social distancing standards.

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.

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

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.

Along with a drop in visits to clinics, there has also been a surge in home births in Israel with expectant mothers afraid to go to hospitals.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service has documented 193 home births nationwide since the beginning of March, a 23% increase over the same period in 2019, Channel 12 reported Friday.

Many of the home births were carried out with a paramedic issuing instructions on the phone.

Medics have said the main explanation is expectant mothers not wanting to potentially expose themselves and their babies to COVID-19, despite the increased risk in home births. Some are reportedly demanding to only be taken to a hospital without a coronavirus ward.

“I want to calm everyone down, hospitals separate women with the coronavirus from the rest of the population,” said Prof. Eyal Sivan, who heads the maternity ward at Sheba Medical Center. “The staff is well-protected and we also protect people who enter — it is very safe to give birth here.”

Anthony Luder, director of the Pediatric Department at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, has witnessed what he considers shocking cases of children’s lives being put in danger because parents are petrified to go to the hospital.

“We’re starting to see growing numbers of issues where children are sick, being kept at home, and then developing complications that are difficult to treat and dangerous to the child,” he told The Times of Israel earlier this month.

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