'Quarter of Israelis may get swine flu'

Health Ministry director-general makes bleak prediction at Knesset committee meeting.

swine flu test kit 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
swine flu test kit 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
If one in four Israelis contracts swine flu this coming winter - as some estimates now indicate - between a quarter and nearly half of employees will go on sick leave, the economy will suffer, schools and other public institutions will close and new mothers will be hospitalized for only 24 hours after giving birth due to staff shortages, outgoing Health Ministry director-general Prof. Avi Yisraeli said on Monday. The ministry, he told a special session of the Labor, Social Welfare and Health Committee, is preparing for this possibility and trying to enlist medical and nursing students and military doctors to help out and expand the number of general hospital beds to 19,000 from the current 14,500. If a public emergency were to be declared, some hospital patients would be sent for treatment in outpatient facilities instead and private hospitals would be asked to help, said Yisraeli. Prof. Allon Moses, chairman of the Israel Society for Infectious Diseases, said prevention is better than treating influenza. Most of those infected have only a mild case, but a minority will become seriously ill, said Moses, adding that "there is talk of 700 younger people dying of it each year." If so, getting a safe and effective vaccine against H1N1 is important. Pregnant women are more susceptible to the virus than other young people, he added. Hadassah University Medical Center pediatrician and infectious disease expert Prof. Dan Engelhard, who heads a team of 30 experts in related fields, advocated the ordering of experimental vaccines, even though they have only now begun to undergo testing on healthy people in Australia and the US. However, leading Health Ministry public health experts oppose immediate ordering of a vaccine that has not been proven and may become irrelevant. Kadima MK Rachel Adato - a gynecologist and lawyer by profession - backed the opponents, saying Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to spend NIS 450 million on the H1N1 vaccine for the entire population was "hasty." The elderly have acquired immunity to swine flu in the past and do not need vaccination for H1N1, and some of the general population are not interested in being vaccinated, even if a safe and effective shot were to become available. Adato added that the virus could easily mutate in the next few months, creating a new strain and making the vaccine useless. Even though complications of the regular flu kills many hundreds of elderly and other people with weak immune systems each winter, many people at high risk decline vaccination. The Kadima MK opposed the Treasury's intentions of cancelling the expansion of the 2010 basket of health services with new drugs against cancer, neurological, cardiological and other diseases, and using the money instead solely to pay for the flu vaccine. No agreement has been reached on the source of funding for the vaccine.