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Last Updated

13 Dec 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2002.


Israel Cites Success in Vaccination Effort

By Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM -- It may still be a matter of debate in the United States, but Israel has already vaccinated 15,000 health workers, police officers and army medics against smallpox with virtually no adverse side effects, Israeli government officials say.

The inoculation campaign began in earnest in September amid fear of a bioterrorism attack from Iraq. The Israeli Health Ministry identified and vaccinated a carefully screened group of "first responders" and will now advise the government on whether to broaden the program's reach

Throughout the campaign, only four people developed symptoms that warranted hospitalization, Health Ministry spokesman Ido Hadari said Thursday. And two of those -- a woman and a baby boy -- hadn't been vaccinated but had touched the places on the arms of relatives where the medicine had been applied.

All four recovered and returned home, Hadari said. He attributed the lack of serious side effects to strict vetting and elimination of those who should not be immunized, including anyone with an immune disorder or eczema, or who was pregnant or had received a transplant.

"It's been a great success for public health," Hadari said. "We were very, very cautious. I don't want to use the word 'frightened,' but we did try to frighten those who were being vaccinated into taking a good look at the contraindications."

Health Ministry officials announced over the summer that they could inoculate all 6.5 million Israeli citizens in a matter of days if smallpox cases were detected here or anywhere in the Middle East.

But the government says it is not presently planning to widen the program to the general public. The perceived threat is not great enough to outweigh the potential health troubles, said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Right now, there is no need," Gissin said. "There are more risks when you vaccinate a whole population instead of a controlled group. Given the intelligence we have and the assessment of the threat at this time, it is not worth an anticipatory vaccination. "

Israel stopped immunizing its children against smallpox in 1978 but continued to vaccinate soldiers until 1996 -- when the children born in 1978 entered military service. After 1996, each new crop of soldiers had not received vaccinations as children, so health officials determined they should not as adults.

As encouraging as Israel's experience with smallpox vaccinations may be, some U.S. experts say it is too small an exercise to draw conclusions about what might happen in the United States, where the Bush administration is planning to inoculate 1 million people.

Also, Israel reproduces its vaccine by injecting it into chicken eggs, while the United States uses a strain that is thought to be more virulent.

Hadari said U.S. officials have been in regular contact with Israeli officials to compare notes. The two groups have consulted on the latest testing in U.S. laboratories, Israel's public education programs and how to allay fears about the inoculations.

The Israelis immunized so far include hospital workers, emergency crews, police and army medics, Hadari said. Rank-and-file soldiers have not been treated, but Guy Rubin, medical division director for the Defense Ministry said that troops will be inoculated against smallpox, and that vaccinations will be available to reservists.