Israel's swine flu death toll reaches 5

Man who had diabetes, high blood pressure dies in J'lem: Israel to order first vaccines for early 2010.

swine flu israel 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
swine flu israel 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A fifth death of swine flu complications was announced in Israel on Friday morning. The Health Ministry said the latest victim was a 50-year-old man who died in Jerusalem's Sha'are Tzedek Hospital. The man, who had been suffering from diabetes and had high blood pressure, was hospitalized a week ago after being diagnosed with the H1N1 virus, and due to his condition, he was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit. He eventually succumbed to pneumonia, the hospital said. Meanwhile, President Shimon Peres has promised Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman to use his connections with one of the foreign pharmaceutical companies that has produced an untested vaccine against swine flu, to reserve supplies for protecting Israelis against the virus. Litzman said Thursday he feared that Israel might be left behind because it had not yet ordered supplies from any of the half-dozen pharmaceutical companies, mostly in the US, that are developing vaccines. H1N1 affects mostly children and people under 50, and produces mild symptoms in 99.9 percent of the cases. But in some high-risk patients, such as pregnant women, people with chronic diseases, smokers, and the obese, it has caused serious complications and even proven fatal. In a meeting Thursday night, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Litzman agreed that the Health Ministry would, in the coming days, purchase options to buy vaccines worth approximately NIS 20 million from a leading European pharmaceutical concern. The vaccines are due to be available at the start of 2010. Swine flu vaccine manufacturers are on track to start delivering the first batches in September, the World Health Organization said Thursday. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO's vaccine director, said several drug-makers had started testing swine flu vaccine in humans, and that early safety results should be available next month, clearing the way for its use. Kieny also insisted that speeding the vaccine to the market would not compromise its safety. Litzman and Peres also discussed how the health system was bracing itself for the winter, when the ordinary seasonal flu - which is more much deadly and hits unvaccinated elderly and weak individuals the hardest - is expected to arrive. The ministry said the H1N1 flu could cause the deaths of 700 Israelis in 2010, but that this was only an estimate. Last week, Netanyahu gave orders to purchase enough H1N1 vaccine - at a cost of NIS 450m. - to protect every Israeli, even though public health experts inside and outside the Health Ministry say it should be given only to people at high risk for complications. The Treasury insists that the vaccine be covered by the NIS 430m. allocation previously agreed upon for expanding the 2010 basket of health services, but Litzman insists that it be paid for by a separate Treasury allocation, as the basket expansion is needed for more lifesaving and life-extending drugs. In addition, vaccinating the population involves a number of serious problems. The vaccine would be new and customized for the H1N1 strain, unlike that for seasonal flu, in which safety has been proven in hundreds of millions of people who have received it - with slight variations - every year for decades. The experimental vaccines are only now beginning to be tested on relatively small groups of healthy people, but not on adults and children suffering from chronic diseases or on pregnant women. Although seasonal flu kills about 1,000 elderly, infants and chronically ill Israelis each winter and the protective vaccine is recommended for a large portion of the population, only hundreds of thousands of people go to their health funds in a given fall or winter for the free vaccination. The Health Ministry has not conducted a public survey to determine whether Israelis - made nervous by reports of a handful of complications and deaths - are willing to roll up their sleeves for two shots of H1N1 flu vaccine and one shot of seasonal flu vaccine. However, the ministry is planning such a poll. Yet even if a fraction of Israelis say they want the vaccine, the ministry will order all the supplies needed to protect the public. In addition, the H1N1 virus could mutate by the time a vaccine is marketed, making the shots useless, or supplies may arrive too late to have any protective effect. Litzman, who was planning a short visit to the US starting Sunday for other official purposes, told Peres he intended to meet American health officials as well and ask for Israel to have a chance at obtaining some of its future H1N1 supplies, despite being in competition with the larger countries that have already put in their orders. Asked why the US would be willing to share some of its supplies with Israel when other countries may be in greater danger, one of Litzman's spokesmen said, "Is it forbidden to ask for it?" He declined to disclose the original reasons for the deputy minister's visit to the US. Since a 12-year-old girl suffering from a serious genetic disease died of cardiac arrest Wednesday after recovering from an H1N1 flu infection, the Health Ministry has decided to change the way it counts victims of the virus. The girl, who died at the Schneider Children's Medical Center in Petah Tikva, was originally named by the ministry as the third fatality from the flu outbreak. But on Thursday, the ministry said it had decided to include in the list the 44-year-old man who died last week at Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital) after recovering from the infection. "In some cases, there is doubt, and we can't absolutely rule out the possibility that H1N1 infection was involved in a case of death," the ministry spokeswoman said. "So we now regard four Israelis as having died from H1N1 complications." The girl, who suffered from chronic illnesses, was treated last week with the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, which can reduce complications of H1N1 flu. She was sent home, but then suffered cardiac arrest. She was rushed back to Schneider and admitted to the intensive care unit. The ministry said the government had no plans at this time to keep schools and kindergartens closed after the end of the school vacation on September 1 due to the H1N1 outbreak. But teachers and caregivers will be asked to teach the children to wash their hands with soap and water at regular intervals. On Wednesday, day-care centers and after-school programs under the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry received strict directives on how to reduce the threat of swine flu among children in their care. "Children are at a greater risk of contracting the virus," said Tamar Almog, director of the Department of Day-care Centers and Kindergartens in the ministry. "We need to take precautions." The instructions from the ministry included keeping children at home if they exhibited any signs of illness; watching vigilantly for initial signs, such as a high fever or runny nose; immediately quarantining children who did turn out to have the flu; and immediately contacting the local health care department if more than one child contracted the virus. Meanwhile, the half-dozen companies in the race to produce safe H1N1 vaccine for a world population that would break their doors down to get supplies are seeking healthy individuals to try it out. IPS Research, a company in Oklahoma City, is accepting 200 participants aged three to eight and over 65 for its clinical drug trial. Without proof of safety, no vaccine will receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. A Boston vaccine company called Replikins has a synthetic vaccine that has not yet completed human clinical trials. A Virginia-based company, MedImmune, has announced that it could have more than 200 million doses of its H1N1 vaccine - an unusual nasal spray rather than shot - within weeks of getting FDA approval. The Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis AG has also developed an experimental vaccine based on using cells as a medium and a wild-type virus rather than chicken eggs as the place for growing it. Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.