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Home » Israel Ministry of Health statement distorted by anti-vaccine activists

Israel Ministry of Health statement distorted by anti-vaccine activists

This article anti-vaccine activists misinterpreting an Israel Ministry of Health statement was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about vaccination’s social and legal policies. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable diseases. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

Contrary to anti-vaccine claims, the Ministry of Health did not say that there were no deaths among healthy young people in Israel – it explained that it only reported on a small minority of deaths where people answered a question about prior conditions/comorbidities. This does not negate the many news stories in Israel reporting on COVID-19 deaths in young, healthy people. 

Anti-vaccine distortions of Israel Ministry of Health

On May 23, 2023, a number of Israeli anti-vaccine activists made the claim that the Ministry of Health released data that “Total COVID-19 deaths in the age group under 50 with no comorbidities: Zero.”

Anti-vaccine journalist Yaffa Shir-Raz followed and amplified the claim, saying:

So the Israel MOH finally admitted after it was forced by the court, that the total number of Covid deaths under age 50 with no comorbidities is ZERO. ZILCH. NADA. Who is responsible for these headlines then? DIED OF COVID, WITH NO UNDERLYING MEDICAL CONDITIONS – They claimed.

And providing screenshots of multiple reports of deaths in young, healthy people. 

Unsurprisingly, these people misrepresented an answer from the Israel Ministry of Health to a freedom of information request.

The facts from the Israel Ministry of Health

Apparently, on May 22, 2023, the Israel Ministry of Health sent a letter to Attorney Ori Shabi in response to a Freedom of Information Request. The relevant question was question 4, “How many Corona patients died without background diseases (which Ms. Shir-Raz translated as “comorbidities” – and was not defined) up to the age of 50?”

Original letter in Hebrew sent to Ori Shabi

The Ministry of Health’s answer (which I have translated from Hebrew) was:

Clause 4 – out of the deceased of corona for whom an epidemiological investigation was conducted and the question about background diseases (note — or comorbidities – I’m not sure what is the better translation) there were reported 0 deceased aged 18-49 without background diseases. We need to mention that the information about background diseases exists in the records of the Ministry of Health only partially, and is based on information the patients themselves or their families provided during an epidemiological investigation if there was an investigation and the patient chose to share the information with the investigator. So, existing information may not reflect the patient’s health. The Ministry of Health does not have – or have access to – the patients’ medical records.

The anti-vaccine activists, of course, ignored the caveats, which was intellectually dishonest. But from a point of view of science communication, the misuse could have been prevented by providing the numbers of such investigations, as the Ministry did later. Their lack made it easy for anti-vaccine activists to misrepresent the letter – especially since the letter was in Hebrew, and shared on Twitter with only the first sentence of answer 4 translated, to be distributed by English-speaking anti-vaccine activists who could not see the misleading omission. 

That said, the Hebrew-speaking readers should have been able to know, from the caveats, that there is no contradiction between these answers and the reports of deaths in young healthy people (that is apart from the fact that, without knowing what “comorbidities/background diseases are here, it’s hard to assess the information). For example, if being overweight is considered such a condition, people can be both overweight and healthy; on this point, from an Israeli doctor, see here

Only after the misinformation spread, on May 25, 2023, the Ministry of Health provided the correction that should have stopped the misinformation but did not. 

Here is the Ministry of Health’s thread, and I will simply translate the tweets in order. 

  1. In response to manipulation, during the last few days, of one of the Ministry of Health’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act, we need to clarify that answers to Freedom of Information Requests always directly address the question asked.
  2. In this case, the Ministry was asked about data regarding deaths and background diseases. The Ministry of Health does not have access to the medical record, so the information is only based on cases where there was an epidemiological investigation and the person or his family [Hebrew is a gendered language, and the default is male; this translation reflects that] answered the question. Therefore, we are looking at very limited information. This, of course, was said in the answer clearly.

The Ministry is right. The comment above was included in the answer, and Hebrew speakers should have realized the caveat. This is why it is hard not to suspect that the Israeli anti-vaccine activists making the claim knew they were misrepresenting the answer – and went ahead and did it intentionally. 

  1. To clarify: 
    Until now, 356 young people (aged 18-49) died of Corona [this refers, of course, to Israeli deaths].

    Out of them, only about half have a reported epidemiological investigation (184 of the deceased). 

    And only about 7.5% (27 of the deceased) answered the question about background diseases. It is on this information that the answer was given.
  1. The Ministry of Health is required to keep all citizens healthy and provide the information the ministry holds transparently. That’s what we did, and will continue doing. 

    We cannot forget that the Corona epidemic killed over 12,500 people in Israel so far, caused severe and critical illness, and to the appearance of post-Corona syndromes that some of those recovering still deal with today>>>
  1. The vaccination operation started during the third lockdown that resulted from a rise in disease and deaths and opening the economy was made possible thanks to the green certificate, which aimed to reduce the risk of contagion during mass events.

The COVID vaccine saved thousands in Israel and millions worldwide – trying to rewrite history is dangerous. 

As the third tweet points out, the Ministry’s answer was based on very partial information and does not – and cannot be interpreted to mean – that no people under 50 with no background disease died from COVID-19.

The anti-vaccine activists claiming otherwise were sharing misinformation.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

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