Israeli health experts prepare for possible coronavirus cases
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Israeli health experts prepare for possible coronavirus cases

'Major challenge' posed by thousands of returning Chinese workers, with Israeli authorities urged to make decisions 'very soon' to prevent a possible outbreak

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

A woman wears a face mask while walking down Kingsway in Holborn, London. PA Photo.: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
A woman wears a face mask while walking down Kingsway in Holborn, London. PA Photo.: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Public health experts in Israel have said the country is already preparing to protect against a deadly new strain of coronavirus originating in China.

Israelis have been advised not to travel to the China but experts said a more pressing issue was Chinese workers coming to Israel.

“A major challenge is thousands of Chinese workers we have in the country, some coming in after Chinese New Year, so the Israeli government will have to make a decision on this very soon,” said Dr Yonatan Freeman of the Political Science department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

British Airways has already stopped all flights to and from the Chinese mainland and Israeli carriers may do the same – there are dozens of such flights a week – but Freeman was unsure whether this would work.

“It would be a very strong measure and the virus is now in more than a dozen countries, so someone else could arrive with it,” he said. “It is probably impossible to ‘shut the door’ now, as long as there is international travel into Israel.”

Professor Hagai Levin, an epidemiologist at the university’s School of Public Health who also chairs the Association of Public Health Doctors, told Jewish News that “although the risk to public health in Israel is relatively low, we must take appropriate steps to prevent Israeli deaths”.

Such outbreaks require close monitoring of new information, he explained, so Israel’s guidelines are updated on a regular basis by the Israeli Ministry of Health, but he was confident in the country’s ability to cope.

“The level of readiness in Israel professionally for this type of outbreak is high,” he said. “At the same time, a shortage of resources and manpower in public health services, community medicine and hospitals is hampering our preparedness.”

Israel has dealt with previous outbreaks, including SARS, bird flu and swine flu, but “none significantly impacted the public, mainly due to proper and quick steps taken by Israel’s government,” said Freeman.

“Israelis have experience fighting outbreaks in humanitarian situations around the world, such as in Western Africa, fighting the Ebola outbreak. This has helped our domestic ability to treat, and quickly respond to, such diseases.”

Professor Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University, cites Israel’s “advanced lab tools, its solid clinical, epidemiological, veterinary and public health collaboration, and its strong surveillance system”.

Quarantining and body temperature testing are options, he said. “Israel enacted voluntary quarantine in the case of pandemic influenza. Mandatory quarantine is very harsh and should be considered only in extremely severe outbreaks.”

All this is water off an Israeli duck’s back, he explained. “You have to balance public health interests, human rights and not disrupting everyday life, similar to security emergencies, which Israel is used to dealing with as part of ‘normal’ life.”

Freeman said Israel’s intelligence services “analyse long-term threats” and “may have been aware of reports from China before they became public”.

He added: “Israel cannot afford threats to its security. If something is brewing it must be dealt with quickly because of Israel’s small size. Not having many ports of entry helps us vet those entering.”

“Finally, it can be assumed that Israel is also talking to Palestinian health authorities, including those ruling Gaza, since they are much less able to deal with such a situation, and any outbreak there could spill over to Israel.”

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