'Revolutionary' health program to help prevent illness approved

Program meant to shift weight of health budget from almost exclusive expenditure on treating disease towards more education of the public.

The National Health Council has given its unanimous approval to implement the Health Ministry's first-ever program to improve national health through preventive measures starting next year. The Health 2020 project, headed by Dr. Eli Rosenberg, has completed four years targeting the problems, aims and proposals for making and keeping Israelis healthier in another 11 years. The program, coordinated by ministry associate director-general Dr. Boaz Lev, is meant to shift the weight of the health budget from almost exclusive expenditure on treating disease towards more education of the public and initiatives to prevent them from becoming ill or from developing dangerous complications. It will include all kinds of initiatives, including encouraging Israelis of all ages to exercise, eat healthful food, stop smoking or never start, get vaccinated against dangerous diseases, minimize pollution and reduce the risk of accidents of all types. The initiators also want to prevent and minimize disability in the population and cut the gap between health care in the center of the country and in its periphery. The US and other Western countries have had such "health targeting" programs for decades, but the health system here - which has always been forced to put out fires rather than planning years or even decades ahead - remained behind. Now, using relevant models from abroad and also consulting with some 300 public health experts sitting on committees, a program is being formulated. With the National Health Council's authorization, the ministry can now present its plans to the Treasury in the hope of getting the first funds for implementation. If carried out, the program would constitute a revolution in the way the health system works. The health funds are responsible for treating disease and injury, but they are not obliged by law to promote the health of their members. The National Health Council was set up soon after the launch of the National Health Insurance Law in 1995 and includes representatives of the government, health funds, professional health groups, consumer organizations and the public. In the two-hour session on Thursday, it was also announced that the World Health Organization has credited Israel for doing an "excellent job" in coping with the H1N1 flu epidemic. Israel was the only one to get such praise from the WHO. Public Health director Dr. Itamar Grotto said that at first, the ministry had adopted the strict rules that were set down in the US, such as checking all who enter the air and sea ports from Mexico, where the outbreak began and isolating those infected in the hospitals. However, as officials noted that the infection has caused no serious illness or deaths, the rules were relaxed. Those infected are asked to isolate themselves at home while they feel symptoms, and checks are not carried out at the ports, Grotto said. Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman, who is chairman of the council, said that based on consultations with experts, it seemed that a H1N1 vaccine that is due to be produced by as many as five pharmaceutical companies abroad "would not be too relevant this year," but that the ministry is considering the possibility of encouraging wider age groups to get ordinary-strain flu vaccine in the fall and winter.