HEALTH MINISTER Yaacov Litzman receives his flu shot from Prof. Itamar Grotto.
(photo credit: HEALTH MINISTRY)
Although many US hospitals require all medical personnel who are in direct contact with patients to get influenza shots every autumn, the Israel Medical Association only recommends the vaccine to its 25,000 members, while it refuses to allow those who have been vaccinated to wear a tag or pin saying so.
IMA chairman Prof. Leonid Eidelman, who is chief of anesthesiology at the Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva, told The Jerusalem Post that doctors should not be forced to get the vaccination. “And even if they do voluntarily wear a pin showing they were vaccinated, it doesn’t give a good impression about those who don’t. There is a slippery slope; doctors could be forced to wear pins saying they have HIV or hepatitis C.
It would never end.”
A senior physician at Manhattan’s NYU Langone Medical Center told the Post that at his hospital, all employees – and not only doctors and nurses – must get vaccinated against the flu at the beginning of the season. This is a common practice there. “We are given a sticker to wear on our ID tag. Theoretically, if for some reason you don’t get the shot, you need to wear a protective surgical mask through the entire flu season,” he said.
Eidelman turned down a suggestion from the Health Ministry a few years ago that those doctors who followed the recommendation be allowed to wear a pin or sign saying they were vaccinated.
The ministry’s suggestion was aimed not only at informing patients whether their doctors were vaccinated, but also for doctors to serve as an example to patients that they too should go to their health fund community clinic for the annual shot. On Wednesday, he reiterated to the Post that he and the IMA were absolutely opposed to requiring medical staffers to be vaccinated and to the pin idea.
According to the ministry’s epidemiology department, the number of people of all ages who died from complications of the flu in the last few months was 27 – double that of last year – and that hardly any of them had gone to their health fund to be vaccinated. In addition, 61 Israelis have been hospitalized with severe complications of the flu since the beginning of the season.
Although the shot – which should have been given in late September to all children over the age of six months and to all adults – is free, only about 19% of the population – or 1.63 million of the more than 8 million Israelis above the age of six months – has been vaccinated.
Even adults aged 65 and over, who are at higher risk for complications from the flu, are inadequately vaccinated; only 59% of them, or 605,000 persons, got flu shots this season.
Children and adults -- and not only the elderly ill with pneumonia and other complications of the flu -- are currently filling the hospital emergency rooms and internal medicine departments. Lying on beds in corridors and in crowded wards, they are even more susceptible to nosocomial (in-house) infections.
Eidelman added that he knew of “no studies showing that patients are infected with the flu by their doctors” or doctors infected by their patients. As for the argument that doctors with such pins would serve as role models for patients who are reluctant to get flu shots, the IMA chief said that is not their job. “It’s a personal decision for everyone, and doctors should not be dictated to.” Asked whether he himself had been vaccinated against the flu this season, Eidelman declined to answer because “this is a political question.”
The injection is good for only one year, as new strains of the virus appear in southeast Asia first and them migrate to the rest of the world, and each strain requires a special component in the vaccine. As the vaccine is safe even for babies and pregnant women and contains a killed virus, it cannot cause the flu – even though some people claim they were vaccinated but “got the flu anyway.”
While healthy people who have the flu are miserable for a week or so with high fever, sore throat, cough and head and body aches and pains, infants, young children, pregnant women, people with chronic illness and the elderly can get complications and even die. Unvaccinated young adults could infect their unprotected children or parents. Healthy people who are in occupations in which there is no one to replace them are also advised to get the shot.
Even Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, whose office is responsible for encouraging flu vaccination and requires the four public health funds to provide free vaccine for large percentages of their members, was uninformed when he told The Jerusalem Post last year that he “got the flu” after being vaccinated, so “they apparently didn’t work.” Many people confuse the symptoms of a bad cold cause by rhinoviruses with much more serious symptoms of influenza, whose virus strains are not related to cold viruses.
Experts in infectious diseases note not that the older one is, the less effective the vaccines are, and there is no 100% protection, but anyone who gets a flu shot and comes down with the flu will get a less serious case and be much less likely to become severely ill or die.