A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg, two days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn in response to a measles outbreak, is seen in New York, U.S., April 11, 2019.
(photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS)
Last week, an El Al flight attendant and a 10-year-old boy each fell into a coma due to the measles, and are sadly suspected to have potentially suffered irreversible brain damage.
A father walked into the nursery of a maternity ward in Tel Aviv, exposing all the newborns – who are too young to be vaccinated – to measles. This comes after several similar cases in other hospitals.
As of April 18, there are 3,964 cases of measles in Israel, according to the Health Ministry website.
There are an estimated 45,000 Israeli children who have not been immunized against the measles and another two million Israelis who are partially vaccinated, meaning they did not receive the second dose.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry is not doing what it takes to solve this national crisis.
The Health Ministry has not even declared the situation an emergency or a crisis. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines an outbreak as having three or more case, while Israel has over 1,000 times that. And the CDC, for its part, says that Israel is experiencing an outbreak. Some Jewish communities in the US face the spread of measles after residents visited Israel and returned to their homes.
The Health Ministry is mostly making concerned statements warning the public about the dangers of measles, such as, that it is the most contagious of all infectious diseases, one in 10 patients require hospitalization after contracting it and two Israelis have died in this outbreak.
In April alone, the ministry published 15 press releases about sites in which people were exposed to the measles.
Despite needing at least two million shots of the immunization, the ministry only has about 215,000, split between MMR – the immunization against measles, mumps and rubella – and MMRV – which adds varicella (chicken pox) to the mix.
There are steps the Health Ministry should take to bring this crisis to an end without more loss of life.
First, the Health Ministry should declare a national emergency and have the Knesset urgently transfer the funds needed to address it. United Torah Judaism’s (UTJ) leaders Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni remain key players here, until a new Knesset and government are sworn in, and they should have an acute sense of the urgency, since the haredi community has been hit hardest.
Next, the Health Ministry must order the doses of the vaccine that it is missing. It is absolutely unacceptable to be lagging behind by at least 1,830,000 doses (that’s 2 million, plus the 45,000 unvaccinated children, minus 215,000 available shots) during an outbreak spanning the entire country.
A massive public education effort must be made, focusing on two areas.
First, the haredi community. The town with the most cases of measles is Jerusalem, with over 1,300. The capital may have a mixed population, but the municipalities leading the measles rankings after that are haredi strongholds Beit Shemesh, Betar Illit, Bnei Brak, Safed, Modi’in Illit and Tiberias. All of those cities – except Safed and Tiberias – are over the recommended rate of vaccination, but an effort should be made to pinpoint the communities where the virus has spread.
The second is people born in Israel between 1957 and 1977, when a second dose of the measles vaccine was not widely administered.
In addition, information about the immunization practices for as many other countries as possible should be made publicly available, since Israel is home to many immigrants. In the US, a second dose was not commonly given until 1989, so anyone born there before that should check their immunization records.
When the new Knesset is sworn in on April 30, its first matter of business should be to pass a law banning unvaccinated students and teachers from educational institutions during an outbreak, and penalizing parents who refuse to immunize their children. The bill was proposed by the previous Knesset, and passed a first reading with support from across the political spectrum and no opposition. The new Knesset must work together, even before a coalition is built, to urgently take this necessary step.
The Health Ministry and Knesset have the power to save lives by preventing many more people from catching the measles. They need to move fast.
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