As the Director of Jerusalem’s fastest growing hospital, Professor Halevy is in a somewhat unique position to assess and address health issues that impact the Jewish community. Speaking at Limmud conference in Birmingham in December, Professor Halevy gave a series of talks ranging from complimentary medicine to the ethics and dilemmas of running a hospital. Professor Halevy shared the importance of highlighting health concerns where the community taking leadership can affect real change, speaking specifically about organ donation and breast and ovarian cancer.
Professor Halevy explained that the breast carcinoma genes, known as BRCA 1 & 2 were discovered in 1995. The prevalence of these genes amongst Jewish Ashkenazi women is particularly high at 2.5% meaning 1 in 40 women is a carrier. Health authorities around the world currently provide free screenings for BRCA 1 & 2 where there is a family history of the gene mutation or breast or ovarian cancer. The audience heard from Alison, a cancer patient who bravely shared her own emotional account of being diagnosed with cancer and how universal screening would have identified the gene mutations and helped her to take preventative action to stay healthy. Professor Halevy explained the need for authorities to offer universal screening for all Ashkenazi Jewish women, based on research conducted at Shaare Zedek which suggests that a lack of family history only reduces the risk of carrying the gene by 50%. “Knowledge is power and we have to convince the authorities that every woman should be entitled to screening free of charge”.
As a former Chairman of the Israeli Organ Transplant Committee, Professor Halevy passionately addressed the medical, ethical and halachic aspects of organ donation. He explained the need for 20-30% of Israeli society to sign up to the donor register in order for there to be enough organs for those requiring transplant. Currently the rate is around 10% and 90 to 110 patients die each year waiting for a donor. In the UK 429 patients died in 2014 waiting for transplant. Recognising this growing concern, laws were passed in Israel to support increased organ donation, one giving every family the right to recognise or choose not to recognise brain death as death. The social justice implications of this law are extremely important and Professor Halevy expressed great pride in their existence and the rights they bestow which are particularly significant to religious families, who now have the protection of this law to ensure their loved ones will continue to be treated after brain death has been pronounced, meaning life support machines and respirators will never be switched off against a family’s wishes.
Having addressed the religious aspects of organ donation, he explained that religious objections are not the main reason for low sign up rates, with secular kibbutzim having similar low donor rates to those in religious communities. Professor Halevy believes superstition is a big factor preventing people from signing up and to this end he spent his 6 years as Chair of the Organ Transplant Committee- in addition to his responsibilities as Director General of Shaare Zedek- giving 70 lectures per year across Israel on the importance of singing a donor card.