Prime Minister (and nominal health minister) Binyamin Netanyahu and Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman have set a "bad example" by not getting vaccinated against H1N1 virus two months after telling the public that they had a "civil duty" to do so.
This was stated on Wednesday evening by Prof. Avinoam Reches, head of the ethics bureau of the Israel Medical Association (IMA), head of medical ethics at the Jerusalem Ethics Center and a senior neurologist at Hadassah University Medical Center.
Reches was the host of the ethics center's symposium at the Konrad Adenaer Convention Center in the capital titled "Who's Afraid of Swine Flu," attended by over 100 people. He said that he had checked 15 minutes before his lecture whether the two cabinet members had yet been vaccinated and was told they hadn't.
Litzman recently asked the ministry for and received a few dozen vaccine doses with adjuvant - previously believed to be somewhat riskier for pregnant women and young children but since proved just as safe - to give to his relatives and friends, but still hasn't been vaccinated himself.
Four vaccine companies - Novartis, Medici, Sanofi Pasteur and Glaxo SmithKline - donated money toward the free symposium, providing for things such as refreshments, a technician and electricity, said Reches, but had no input at all regarding the content. In fact, no company representative was invited to say anything in defense of the vaccines, which have been used on only 3.2 percent of the population (or some 250,000 individuals) even though the government purchased enough for 7.3 million residents.
Reches and other speakers conceded that the public had developed a "vaccinophobia" because of "misinformation and disinformation" against the vaccine, through irresponsible Web sites, inadequate expertise in the media, the failure of more than 30% of medical staffers to get the shot themselves and state's so-far-failed educational campaign to get people to roll up their sleeves.
Some Web sites, said the neurologist, falsely claim that the pharmaceutical companies created the unusual virus strain just so they could sell vaccines. There are currently some 40 million Web sites that mention the alleged "dangers" of the H1N1 vaccine, but in fact, side effects have been almost always mild and temporary.
Reches noted that most family physicians have not been recommending shots to their patients because they see only mild cases; doctors in hospital intensive care units who see very sick and dying patients who were infected have a different view, he added.
IMA secretary-general Leah Wapner said that after studying the matter, her organization decided to endorse the vaccine. But with such a weak public response, she worried that "the next time there is a pandemic, the government will be reluctant to purchase vaccine against it. There is a world trend against vaccinations, even [though] the risk of this vaccine is very small. You can't compare it with the risk of not getting the vaccine and getting sick," she said.
Health Ministry director-general Dr. Eitan Hai-Am, who did get vaccinated publicly at a Tel Aviv press conference two months ago as Netanyahu and Litzman stood by, said the vaccine story was a "no-win situation," as when the government decided to buy vaccine for all and most was not used, the ministry would be criticized, as it would have if it didn't buy any and many people died.
"The defense minister buys missiles and hopes he doesn't have to use them. You buy life insurance but hope you won't need it," he said.
Hai-Am said he was disappointed in hospital doctors and nurses, whose vaccination rate despite pressure from their employers ranged from 60% at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem to just 4% at Bikur Holim Hospital.
Dr. Amelia Anis, a leading ministry epidemiologist, said none of the 78 people who died after H1N1 infection had been vaccinated.
"The winter is not yet over, and we don't know what will happen," she said. "We should persuade everyone we know to get a shot."
The ministry announced that the latest victim - the 77th since March - was a 16-year-old girl with serious chronic illness who died Wednesday at Rambam Medical Center.
Hadassah pediatrician and infectious disease expert Prof. Dan Engelhard, head of the ministry's advisory committee on infectious disease, also urged vaccination as there were numerous hospitalized people in serious condition around the country.
There is now plenty of vaccine without adjuvant - the immunity-boosting substance that was in the first shipments of vaccine, said ministry public health chief Dr. Itamar Grotto. Adjuvant may make the vaccine effective if the flu strain mutates, he said. Now it is known that adjuvant vaccine is not dangerous to pregnant women and children under 3; there was not enough evidence when the vaccine campaign began, but now anyone can get either vaccine, he said.