Health officials in Israel ordered the immunization of all citizens up to age 40 to stem an outbreak of polio, which had been thought to be under control in the country.
Eight Israelis are known to have been stricken with polio in the past two months. The last case was reported Oct. 1, when an 8-year-old boy fell ill in the coastal town of Hadera, where the virus has been found in the sewage system.
Health officials responded to the Hadera outbreak by immunizing residents in and around the town and in a few other places. But a recent discovery of the virus in sewers, in widely separate parts of the country, convinced the government of the need for nationwide inoculation. The program begins today in the towns of Acre and Rehovot.
The government will use a combination of two vaccines in an effort to obtain 100% immunity in the population.
A separate program is planned for the Arab West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied by Israel.
Although no known case of polio has affected a person over age 32, people up to 40 will be immunized as a special precaution.
Poliomyelitis, the full name of the disease, is a virus that attacks the gray matter of the spinal cord and brings on paralysis and deformities. It strikes mainly the young, and before the development of vaccines against it, the disease terrorized families the world over under its then-familiar name of infantile paralysis.
As in most developed countries, polio has been rare in Israel in recent years, and its reappearance led to accusations that the government had been lax in terms of public health.
Physician Haim Gerichter told a newspaper, The Nation, that health officials had failed to administer booster vaccine to children immunized in infancy.
In Hadera, a meeting of the health minister, Shoshana Arbeli Almoslino, and local officials and residents ended in a shouting match. The minister accused town officials of spending too much money on public gardens and not enough on sewer maintenance.
There are indications that health officials ignored a warning of a possible epidemic when five Arabs contracted polio earlier this year. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, these cases were found in the towns of Rahat and Kafr Kasim and in the Gaza Strip, which is occupied by the Israeli military.
“We had signs,” the Post quoted Israeli physician Yossi Manor as saying. “We thought they were just sporadic cases.”
Manor denied assertions that the outbreak was ignored because of racial discrimination.
Until Thursday, the government had insisted that nationwide inoculation was unnecessary.
Starting late last month, the government immunized members of the armed forces and increased chlorination of drinking water.