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Unmasking the scientific face of Israel

CM 16/09/2021

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Dr. Michel Thieren has spent 30 years treating the world’s sickest people, in Thailand and Cambodia, Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwandan refugee camps and the Congo.
“People were not sick enough in my country,” the Belgian-born Thieren told The Jerusalem Post from his 10th-floor office in the heart of Tel Aviv, eight months into his groundbreaking role for the World Health Organization (WHO) as its first liaison to the Jewish state.
It’s a change of pace for Thieren, who has spent his career navigating his way through acute global medical crises.

“My first mission when I graduated medical school long ago was to consider that the needs were not where I was living,” explained Thieren. “I started to do, and have always done, emergency work.”
Thieren’s pursuit to provide medical care in the world’s crisis hot spots opened his eyes to the politicization of medicine.
“When you enter a political situation, medical care is often determined by the political situation in which you are in. When you do humanitarian action from a medical point of view, you must address those political deterrents,” he said.
The situation became very acute in his last role as director of the WHO Regional Emergency Program for the Eastern Mediterranean, a position that took him to the heart of the Mideast conflict in Gaza, the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Syria. In Syria he described a “systematic assault against healthcare” that represented the darkest side of medicine.
Thieren arrived in Israel on January 2 to open the WHO’s first official office in the country. His official title is special representative of the regional director to Israel and special adviser to the WHO regional director for Europe on COVID-19. But he said his role is “to be a witness of what is going on here, because what is going on here is quite unprecedented.
“I did not come to Israel to do emergency work,” Thieren said. “I want to unmask the scientific face of Israel and remove the political face under which Israel is perceived even in global health instances.”
Unlike in the Congo, for example, where dirt roads are marked by misery, massacres and disease, Thieren looks out on concrete sidewalks now and skyscrapers representing the heart of the country’s innovation sector.
“I find Israel to be a fascinating country,” Thieren said, “one of those countries in the world that you just cannot ignore. Stuff is happening here, and so I was naturally inclined and interested in Israel. I strongly requested to come here.”
He said WHO and Israel together made a “political decision” to have an office in Tel Aviv that is “not an office for Palestine that is based in Israel.”
In fact, the office is tied to the WHO Regional Office for Europe, as opposed to its Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, which manages WHO’s support in Gaza and the West Bank.
“I am not here to talk about the situation with the Palestinian territories,” he said. “Whatever we can facilitate in negotiations, we are open to it. But we – Rik Peeperkorn, head of the WHO office for the West Bank and Gaza and I – are not going to make or do a lot of things together, because our mandates are different.”
The Israel office is still being fully and legally ratified, due to bureaucracy and COVID-19 delays. Thieren is the only official employee, aside from an Israeli contractor who was hired to help him administratively. Nonetheless, he has lofty aspirations.
“I am here first to offer a solidarity presence,” he stressed.
A fresh arrival in the country during the spring offensive between Hamas and Israel, Thieren traveled to Ashkelon in the middle of the conflict to visit doctors and patients, including rocket attack victims, at Barzilai Medical Center.
“I made a report about this visit,” he explained. “It needs to be that the voice is not always the voice on the other side. There is a need for balanced reporting. I am not entering politics here; I am talking about solidarity with Israel. If something happens, we need to show compassion.”
Second, he wants to make sure that Israel’s best medical practices are documented and shared with others outside the country – “exporting the good practices and good science of Israel, making it available to other countries,” Thieren said.
For example, he said the country is one of the most advanced in the 53-state European region when it comes to digital health, which he believes is a precondition for universal health coverage and was also a key ingredient in Israel’s successful and stunningly rapid vaccine rollout.
He also plans to leverage Israeli brainpower in the realms of genomics and precision medicine, and ensure that Israel is better represented in general on WHO international committees.
And he said that he has connected Israel to be a pilot country for a new WHO hepatitis C elimination certification program, alongside the United Kingdom and Australia.
“I don’t believe the office here should be an operation of technical cooperation. People know what to do here,” Thieren said.
THE COVID-19 pandemic really highlighted Israel’s willingness and ability to lead in the medical sphere, he explained – even when most of the world, including his own organization, has argued otherwise.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom has called for a global moratorium on COVID-19 booster shots to enable progress toward vaccinating at least 10% of the population of every country.
In a column for Time magazine last month, Tedros wrote of giving booster doses to populations that have already received a full course of vaccination: “Not only is this ethically objectionable… the scientific data to support such a major policy intervention, which will have dramatic effects on global vaccine supply, is still being gathered.”
But Thieren said he sees Israel as “acting responsibly for its people.
“I don’t think anyone here is ignoring the rest of the world, and I don’t see what is going on here as a selfish expression of vaccine nationalism,” he said.
Moreover, Thieren responded to a statement made this week by Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash that Israel was preparing for yet a fourth dose of the vaccine with praise.
“Someone has to lead the way – and that is Israel,” Thieren said. “Israel has three or four months on the others. I am not saying Israelis are the guinea pigs of the world, but there is an advanced rollout, and there are learnings that everyone is looking at.
“Israel does a very good job of sharing knowledge,” he continued. “Every week there is an Israeli paper in an American journal that hits the news and influences decision-making.”
He also said that, scientifically, Ash is likely correct.
Coronavirus, according to Thieren, is not going to disappear; eradicating the disease is “a wishful, aspirational goal” but not reality.
He said that he expects that there will be serious mutations appearing on a regular basis, and it would be wise to believe that the virus will evolve like the flu, which requires an annual vaccine shot.
“We don’t say I am getting my 15th dose” when discussing vaccination against influenza, he stressed. Ultimately, he assumes we will stop counting COVID shots, too.
Thieren even praised Israel for inoculating 120,000 Palestinians who work in Israel, and said he believes that contract provisions are likely the culprit behind why Israel has not provided more doses to its neighbors. Giving vaccines to the Palestinians, he said, is not just a matter of “goodwill. It is more complicated than that. I think this is a false debate, and I don’t see Israel as depriving anyone.”
On the other hand, he has little patience for vaccine refusers, who he said are ultimately the catalyst behind why countries like Israel will have to vaccinate their children – most of whom are at low risk for severe infection, although a study published by the ministry on Monday showed that around one in 10 children had symptoms for several months after recovering from coronavirus.
While it is still unclear what percentage of people need to be vaccinated or recovered from the virus to achieve herd immunity, health experts believe the percentage is somewhere between 80% and 90% of the population. In Israel, there are close to 1 million eligible people who have not vaccinated – about 20% of eligible citizens.
“We have 10,000 cases here every day with coverage of about 70%, because 70% is not enough,” Thieren said. “We are going to have to vaccinate children soon probably, and we would not have to if we didn’t have so many refusals.”
Reports in recent days have said that the US Food and Drug Administration is likely to give emergency use authorization to the Pfizer vaccine for children ages five to 12 as early as the end of next month. Israeli health officials have said the country will wait to administer the vaccine to these young children until such approval is granted.
“If Israel did not have 10,000 daily cases, it would not look down the rabbit hole of five-year-olds,” Thieren said. “There have been so many campaigns and messages, but we have to do more. We need people to get the needles – it is just basic.”
WHILE CENTERED on health, Thieren said he also hopes to connect to Israel’s biblical and Zionist roots. He considers himself agnostic, but “I have a great interest in religion. When you are interested in religious texts, you go to the source.”
He wants to learn Hebrew so he can read the biblical texts in their original form, and he also wants to explore and understand how Israel became what he considers a striking story of success.
“After almost 75 years of existence, Israel is one of the most fascinating results of self-determination of a people,” Thieren said. “This huge Zionist project is fascinating for someone who has been exercising medicine and politics.”
How long does he plan to stay?
“It can be short or long,” Thieren said. “We never know.”

Source: Jerusalem Post

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