British Docs: Does Tamiflu Work? Israel Answers: 'Yes!'

Israeli health officials downplay a British study questioning the efficacy of medications Tamiflu and Relenza - widely used here to fight the flu.

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Hana Levi Julian, | updated: 17:08

Tamiflu (oseltamivir)
Tamiflu (oseltamivir)
Israel news photo

Israeli health officials are downplaying a study by British researchers questioning the efficacy of the anti-viral medications Tamiflu and Relenza. Both neuraminidase inhibitors are used widely in Israel, primarily for treatment of influenza within the first 24-48 hours that symptoms appear. Tamiflu is produced by Teva Pharmaceuticals under license from Roche.

The study, published this week in the online British Medical Journal, claimed the medications oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) were only minimally effective in fighting the standard strain of influenza.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has ordered the Health Ministry to purchase enough of the medications to cover every citizen in Israel, in light of the current global swine flu pandemic. At least five people have died in Israel of swine flu-related causes; two were completely healthy prior to contracting the illness.

"Tamiflu has been proven effective in treating children and adults who are sick with the flu," maintained pediatrician and professor Dr. Dan Engelhard of Hadassah University Medical Center. Engelhard, who is also an adviser to the Health Ministry, emphasized that parents should continue to give their children Tamiflu, if prescribed by a doctor. "Tamiflu has been given to a very large number of children in Israel and abroad," he noted.

Engelhard added that while the medicine's known side effects of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea might be unpleasant, they are not dangerous.

Researchers at Oxford University and John Radcliffe Hospital (also in Oxford) reported that anti-virals provide a small benefit by shortening the duration of the illness by only up to a day and a half. They also said the medication reduced household transmission of the illness within a family by eight percent.

However, the medication had little effect on complications with asthma, they said, nor did it reduce the need for antibiotics in flu complications such as bronchitis or ear infections. Tamiflu was also associated with an increased risk of vomiting -- a common symptom of the flu in any case -- although Relenza was better tolerated.

The jury is still out as far as the medication's effect on the incidence of serious complications, and on the current A/H1N1 strain of influenza (swine flu) is concerned.

The researchers reviewed published and unpublished radomized controlled trials carried out in children up to age 12 with confirmed or suspected cases of the flu. None of the children were hospitalized.

Rabbis Seek Healing from Higher Authority
While health officials debate the pros and cons of using traditional medical treatments to fight the flu, both standard and swine, a group of rabbis boarded a plane Monday to implement a different treatment.

Chanting Kabbalistic formulae and blowing the shofar (ram's horn) in a ritual manner, the rabbis and other passengers on the plane circled the country, encompassing all the "infected areas" with prayers. "The purpose of the flight was to stop the epidemic so that people will not keep dying from it," Rabbi Yitzchak Basri, one of the participants on the flight, explained to Yediot Acharonot.

Dr. Yuval Rabinovich, medical director of the Leumit health clinic in Arad, has maintained that despite the high number of people who have caught the illness, the H1N1 virus is much milder than other forms of flu.

More than 2,000 cases have been confirmed in the country, although it is estimated that at least 20,000 have been infected with the virus since the first outbreak was reported in April.