Ringworm affair (Israel)
The ringworm affair refers to circumstances involving an alleged number of 20,000 to 200,000 Israeli individuals who were treated between 1948 and 1960 for tinea capitis (ringworm) with ionizing radiation to the head and neck area. The population suffering from the disease in Israel at the time was composed primarily of newly arrived immigrants, mostly from North Africa, as well as some from Middle East and elsewhere. Though radiation was the standard treatment at the time, studies have shown the treatment caused cancer and other health problems.
The treatment of ringworm patients is viewed by activists in Israel as the most salient example of injustices encountered in the 1950s as a result of shortcomings or irresponsibility on the part of authorities in the absorption in Israeli society of new immigrants.
Ringworm in Israel and Jewish communities
The scalp ringworm, also known as tinea capitis, mycosis, thrichophytia, and favus, was one of the most common fungal diseases in children in the Jewish communities in Israel and abroad since the 19th century. This X-ray treatment for ringworm has been used around the world as early as 1897. An estimated 200,000 children worldwide received X-ray treatment for tinea capitis in accordance with the standard Adamson-Kienbock procedure between 1910 and 1959, until griseofulvin, the first effective antifungal agent for ringworm, was introduced.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem treated ringworm disease among the religious Jewish community in Jerusalem using irradiation and the disease almost disappeared.
With mass immigration in the 1940s and 1950s, many new cases of ringworm surfaced, primarily among immigrant children from Asia and North Africa, due to crowded living conditions with deficient hygiene facilities. At this time, ringworm was still treated with irradiation, under the supervision of Hadassah Medical Center (Prof. Dostrovsky and Prof. Drukman).
The treatment regime increased the risk of cancerous and noncancerous growths of the head and neck area years later among a portion of the patients. A number of research groups in Israel and the world have followed patients who were irradiated as children, in order to examine this group's susceptibility to cancerous growths. In Israel, this study was led by Professor Baruch Modan, who published an article in the medical journal The Lancet in 1974, in which Modan determined a strong causal linkage between irradiation of ringworm patients and the appearance of growths on the head and neck.
In light of Modan's findings, in 1994 the Knesset passed a law requiring the Israeli government to provide compensation for damage to health resulting from exposure to such ringworm treatment. Compensation was available to patients (or their next of kin) treated with irradiation for ringworm between January 1, 1946 and December 31, 1960 and diagnosed with certain diseases as stipulated in the legislation. The law, however, placed the burden of proof on the claimant to submit factual evidence substantiating that they had received treatment – a proviso that generated public criticism.
The Ringworm Children
A documentary film in Hebrew entitled The Ringworm Children (Hebrew: ילדי הגזזת; Yaldei Hagazezet), produced by the Dimona Communications Center and directed by Asher Nachmias and David Balchasan, was released in 2003. In 2007, the film received the Best Documentary Film Award at the Haifa International Film Festival and was featured as a documentary at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles. The documentary harshly attacked Israel's medical establishment in the 1950s, branding the episode "the ringworm children's holocaust" (shoat yaldei hagazezet). It also harshly criticized the compensation law and the politicians involved in its passage.
Treatment of ringworm patients is viewed by Mizrahi activists in Israel as the most salient example of injustices immigrants encountered in the 1950s as a result of shortcomings, negligence, paternalism, or irresponsibility on the part of Israeli authorities in the reception and absorption in Israeli society of new immigrants.
It is claimed in the documentary that the X-ray radiation used on the children was thousands of times beyond the maximum recommended dose and it is suggested that the program was funded by the United States in order to test the effects of large radiation doses on humans. In fact, the treatment in Israel was the same as that used elsewhere in the world. The documented dosages given to the Israeli children were similar to (if not less than) those administered to about 2000 children treated for ringworm at New York University Hospital between 1940 and 1959. A study from the early 1950s found X-ray treatment effective in almost all cases of ringworm.
The documentary alleges that 100,000 children were irradiated, and that 6,000 of them died shortly after receiving treatment. Therefore, the documentary alleged, the campaign against North African immigrants to Israel – prior to or following their arrival - was only part of an international phenomenon whose scope is still being uncovered.
Research conducted by medical historian Professor Shifra Shvarts, in the first decade of the 21st century, casts the Israeli ringworm narrative in an entirely new context. Shvarts followed a handful of parenthetical references to international organizations in Israeli primary documents, uncovering a wealth of archival material in Hadassah and United Nations archives and subsequently in the archives of a growing list of countries. This material showed that mass treatment of ringworm in Israel was founded on treatment protocols designed and administered decades earlier.
During the years 1921–1938, there was a campaign among Jews in Eastern Europe (that is, among Ashkenazi Jews) in the course of which some 27,000 East European children were irradiated in an identical fashion – in part to allow their families to emigrate, since ringworm was grounds for exclusion of immigrants to the United States and elsewhere. The campaign carried out on Mizrahi children from the Mediterranean region was based on this European campaign. The organizers were convinced that the European campaign had been successful in treating ringworm and therefore they sought to enable the Jews of Morocco to benefit from the same. Since most of the Jewish children who had been irradiated in Eastern Europe perished in the Holocaust, there was no way of knowing the ramifications of such treatment
A key figure in formulation and organization of the ringworm campaign among the Jewish community in North Africa was Professor Moshe Prywes, who would later become president of Ben-Gurion University and the founding dean of BGU's Medical School. Prywes traveled to North Africa in 1947; following his findings there, he formulated a comprehensive program for eradicating contagious diseases among those planning to immigrate to Israel. The program was called T.T.T., for the three leading diseases the program would address: Tinea (Ringworm), Trachoma, and Tuberculosis.
Parallel to irradiation for ringworm carried out during the 1950s in the State of Israel, irradiation for ringworm was also carried out among children in Yugoslavia (94,000), in Portugal (30,000), and in Syria (7,000). About 4,600 children were irradiated for the disease between the years 1922-1958 in just one hospital in London.
The primary agent behind these ringworm eradication operations was UNICEF, which even assisted in the purchase of X-ray machines for this purpose. It supplied the two X-ray machines that operated in the immigrant intake and processing facility for immigrants in Israel, Sha'ar Ha'aliyah, south of Haifa. With the development of the drug griseofulvin for treating ringworm, UNICEF, as part of its policy devoted to eradicating contagious diseases among mothers and children, began funding the supply of the drug to all countries with a high incidence of ringworm.
There is a question of how many children of Moroccan origin actually suffered health issues as a result of X-ray ringworm treatment in childhood. Estimates in the aforementioned documentary film claim there were a hundred thousand persons or more. Others go even farther: a non-profit organization, established in 1999 to organize former patients and to ensure their compensation, put the number of Mizrahi children irradiated at 200,000.
A more accurate assessment can be extrapolated from reliable statistical data in the historic record. In Dr. Yaron Tzur's work on Moroccan Jewry between the years 1940–1954 demographic data found by the author regarding the Moroccan Jewish population showed the numbers must have been much smaller. A 1947 Moroccan census, even after adjustments, show there were at most 240,000 Jews in Morocco at the time. The work is a comprehensive study, filled with archival material, correspondence of key figures, reports of Israel emissaries and a rich bibliography that includes a list of all points of settlement in which Jews resided in Morocco, down to those with just a few families.
Data shows 80,000 Jews emigrated from Morocco by 1956. Therefore, the maximum number of child immigrants within the age range that ringworm attacks could not have exceeded 20,000 to 25,000. If one assumes that not all the children in that age group had ringworm, then no more than 10,000 to 15,000 underwent irradiation. The Israel Ministry of Health has the files of 10,000 individuals; they are, apparently, the total number of individuals irradiated of all ethnic origins.
Reports submitted to UNICEF by the Israeli Ministry of Health, published in the medical news, state that the number of children treated with irradiation in Israel between 1948–1959 was approximately 15,000. Testimony exists that shows that children of Eastern European origin who were suspected of having ringworm were also irradiated. It is hard to know their numbers but they most likely numbered a few thousand. According to Giora Leshem, who was Professor Modan's statistical partner in his 1974 study (based on the Cancer Registry), it seems that the number of Moroccans who were irradiated was in the vicinity of 15,000 children.
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