Professor Shmuel Rishpon, Head of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG), Israel

I have always felt a call to saving as many lives as possible – vaccination simply seemed to me the best way to do so.

Shmuel Rishpon

WHO recommends that every Member State establish a national immunization technical advisory group (NITAG) to provide policy-makers at the ministry of health with evidence-informed advice on issues related to vaccines and immunization. This advice covers everything in the national immunization programme, including which vaccines to include in the national immunization schedule, the number of doses needed and the ages at which they should be given.

For the past 25 years, Professor Shmuel Rishpon has been leading discussions on vaccination as Head of the Israeli NITAG, or, as it is called in Israel, the Advisory Committee on Infectious Diseases and Immunization.

In addition to his day-to-day work, this role gives him the opportunity to directly influence policy-making at the national level, thereby helping to reach even more people with the life-saving vaccines they deserve.

“I have been working as a medical doctor my entire life, because I have always felt a call to saving as many lives as possible – vaccination simply seemed to me the best way to do so, as it is the most efficient health intervention we have,” says Professor Rishpon.

Evidence as the backbone of a strong immunization programme

For Professor Rishpon, serving as Head of the Israeli NITAG has been a fundamental way to pursue his vision of Israel as a country free of vaccine-preventable diseases, where every person has equitable access to affordable vaccines.

To help achieve this goal, Professor Rishpon and the other NITAG members dedicate their time and efforts to “analyse studies and data on vaccination and pass on to the Ministry what we deem necessary and important”.

In his opinion, “Evidence-based information is the very core of every strong immunization system. As an independent expert group, it is our duty and responsibility to ensure that all vaccination-related decisions in our country are based on evidence and strive to benefit the population.”

As an example, Professor Rishpon highlights the NITAG’s recent recommendation to introduce meningococcal B vaccine to the country’s routine immunization schedule. “Although this vaccine is quite expensive and the disease quite rare, we found this vaccine to be highly effective in preventing severe forms of meningitis. Due to the severity of cases experienced in Israel, and our goal to reduce overall morbidity and mortality rates, the Ministry is currently considering whether to introduce the vaccine or not based on our advice. I think this is a perfect example illustrating our and any NITAG’s function.”

To ensure transparency, Professor Rishpon makes sure that the minutes of each meeting are published online. “If we want to establish a fair public discourse on vaccination and for people to trust the system, we have to be fully transparent and share our way of thinking with them. Only if we openly share with them how and why we come to certain conclusions, can we ensure a healthy relationship with the public in terms of immunization.”

Striving to close immunization gaps by addressing existing barriers

Although Israel has one of the highest immunization coverage rates in the WHO European Region, certain pockets of under- and unvaccinated populations remain. “Unfortunately, health facilities in some neighbourhoods are not equipped to sufficiently serve the needs of the community: opening hours are suboptimal and nurses are overwhelmed,” Professor Rishpon points out.

Although mobile teams were deployed to vaccinate children with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine during a recent measles outbreak, and opening hours were broadened to include afternoons and evenings, questions on how to tackle this issue in the future remain.

Professor Rishpon explains: “We have to better serve these communities to sustain measles elimination and control other diseases. Ensuring equitable access to vaccination and leaving no one behind is one of our main goals.”