The end of Succot is usually a reminder to go to one's health fund clinic to get a flu vaccination, but most people will have to wait a few weeks for their shot - unless they are at very high risk for complications.
The recent discovery by international health authorities of three new strains (Wisconsin, Malaysia and Caledonia) of influenza A and B virus has forced the Pasteur Institute in France and Novartis's Chiron in the US and England to alter their vaccine to protect against these types as well.
As a result, the four health funds expect to receive the millions of doses they ordered by the end of October or in the first week of November at the latest.
Flu vaccine, comprised of a killed virus that does not cause the illness itself, does not completely protect all vaccinated people from coming down with the flu, but if they do become infected they will get a much milder case.
Vaccination is very often lifesaving, as individuals who are elderly or have weak immune systems, including babies aged six months to two years, can develop serious and even fatal complications if they get flu, such as pneumonia.
Dr. Giora Verber, deputy head of Clalit Health Services's medical branch, said the country's largest health fund ordered 700,000 doses of vaccine, compared to 560,000 last year. So far, Clalit has received only 80,000 doses, and this supply had already been used to vaccinate very high risk individuals, such as those bedridden in institutions or at home. "Our nurses actively went out to homes to vaccinate such patients at no charge," he said.
"When we receive additional supplies, we will offer the shots to people over 65, pregnant women, and patients suffering from chronic disorders such as heart disease, AIDS, cancer, asthma, diabetes and hypertension, as well as to children aged six months to two years," Verber added. "Then lower risk people can get their shot. Probably the last to get vaccinated will be medical personnel in contact with patients - at least until we get all the supplies we ordered."
He said that while health fund members who are bedridden receive it free, all others have had to pay NIS 11, or NIS 5 if they have supplementary health insurance.
Verber urged everyone over 50 to get vaccinated once there is enough vaccine even if they were not at high risk. "One dose protects for a year, but if you get the shot every year, your immunity is enhanced and you are even better protected."
Verber said he expected all 700,000 doses to be used, as "every year there is some scare that increases demand. Last year it was avian flu and SARS, even though influenza vaccine is not effective against these. This year it will inevitably be something else."
The Clalit physician also said his health fund had lent 10,000 doses to Maccabi Health Services, "who went down on their hands and knees and begged to borrow some from us."
The Maccabi spokesman said his health fund started vaccinating members on Sunday. "We don't have any kind of shortage; it is just the famous delay that is caused by the manufacturers abroad. Maccabi is vaccinating more members each year, so we purchased 270,000 units compared to 220,000 last winter. We more then doubled the number of members getting vaccinated last year compared to the same season a year before."
Until all the supplies arrive, Maccabi - the second largest health fund - will also be vaccinating only high risk groups. "Starting on November 1," the spokesman said, "we will vaccinate the general population as well."
The spokeswoman for Kupat Holim Meuhedet, the third largest health fund, said high-risk individuals and those over 50 would get their shot free, while those aged two to 49 will be charged NIS 12. High-risk patients will receive postcard invitations to come in for their shot.
Kupat Holim Leumit offers free vaccinations only to members of high-risk groups.
As for pneumoccal pneumonia shots, which cost NIS 25 each, there is no shortage of vaccine. It is given once in 10 years to people over 65 and to some other patients with respiratory diseases and cancer. Verber said there was an initiative to persuade the Treasury to cover the costs for these shots so that all high-risk individuals would get it free.