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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The government has arranged for options to purchase enough H1N1 flu vaccine to cover the entire population, but much of it would arrive only in January even if it were approved speedily by the World Health Organization and the US Food and Drug Administration, Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Litzman, who just spent a week in New York, Washington, and at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and two days in Poland, said he explained to his US counterpart, William Corr, the deputy secretary for health and human resources, that Israel had been unable to order vaccine doses - at least for its high-risk populations. So far, Novartis has agreed in principle to sell a million doses and options on a half-million more, but they would not be ready until October.
Sanofi-Aventis is willing to sell seven million doses to Israel, but they would not arrive before January, when the seasonal flu season is usually over. It is not known now whether the H1N1 flu strain will mix with the seasonal flu strain to become an altered entity, or remain separate.
The deputy minister said that the use of vaccines to protect against the new strain is very iffy, as none of the vaccines developed has been tested on large populations and proven safe and effective.
He noted that it was most important for high-risk groups such as pregnant women and people with chronic illness to be vaccinated if the vaccine is ready on time.
Litzman stated clearly that he has been assured by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that flu vaccines would not come at the expense of expanding the basket of health services for 2010.
Litzman said he was not upset with Netanyahu, who is formally the health minister, for being involved in the search for H1N1 vaccines, as "we are cooperating and agreed in advance that he would seek vaccines in Europe and I would look for them in the US."
Although he knew of the Health Ministry poll finding that a quarter of Israelis would refuse to be vaccinated against H1N1 either because the vast majority of cases are mild and they were not afraid of the infection, didn't think such a vaccine would be safe or effective, or don't like injections, Litzman said he thought most people - especially those at high risk of complications - would roll up their sleeves for it.
The 60-year-old deputy minister, a Gur hassid, said he himself would be vaccinated against the new strain if the vaccine were approved and imported, but he hasn't decided if he would do so publicly. The haredi populations he met in New York were not panicking about an epidemic, he said. The number of cases there is declining now. Many Israeli haredi rabbis will instruct their flocks to get vaccinated, especially pregnant women and other high-risk groups, he insisted.
Litzman discounted the idea that haredim were at any higher risk than the rest of the population due to crowded apartments and neighborhoods, bathing in ritual baths or even kissing mezuzot on the doorposts. "Mezuzot protect the home; they won't spread disease," he said, but he conceded that he had not consulted experts about this.
In Warsaw, Litzman met with the deputy health minister and discussed the possibility of Poland ordering vaccines from Israel in the eventuality that Israel managed to set up a vaccine production industry. "Poland has not ordered any H1N1 vaccine yet," he said.
As for the quiet but persistent criticism in the health system that Litzman promised "a revolution" when entering office and has not yet delivered, Litzman told the Post that most of the potential reforms raise a great deal of opposition meant to stymie change and that he still intends to make major changes.
He was caught up with immediate crisis and has been waiting three weeks for the approval of his nominee for ministry director-general, Dr. Eitan Hai-Am, who works for Clalit Health Services and wanted to take leave rather than resign from the health fund. But Litzman said the Civil Service Commission has approved his nomination and that a vote will be held in the cabinet on Sunday.
Hai-Am, a former director-general of Soroka University Medical Center, will replace Prof. Avi Yisraeli, who has been in the post for nearly six years and asked not to continue.