One of the developers of the measles vaccine, Dr. Samuel Katz, pushed students to fight for the eradication of preventable diseases Tuesday night at the French Family Science Center.
Katz, the Wilburt Cornell Davison professor and chairman emeritus of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine, spent the first part of his talk—which was hosted by Duke Red Cross and the Duke Undergraduate Research Society—focusing on his role in the discovery of the measles vaccine. He also discussed his work in Nigeria testing and evaluating the vaccine, emphasizing that measles can be more deadly in low-resource nations where malnourishment and other diseases are common.
“The mothers in Nigeria said, ‘you don’t count your children until measles has passed,’” explained Katz, who mentioned that when he first traveled to Nigeria, the mortality rate for measles was as high as 15 percent.
Katz also noted that the polio vaccines developed in the 1950s were a major motivation for Nobel laureate John Enders to switch his focus to measles. Enders and Katz worked together at Children’s Hospital Boston Center to develop the vaccine.
“If you could develop a vaccine for polio, why not for measles?” he recalled asking himself.
Before the development of the vaccine, measles was a common childhood ailment that infected between 3 and 4 million children every year in the U.S. alone. While most children only experienced a fever, rash or other symptoms, a small percentage of cases resulted in death. The vaccine went on the market in 1963.
The work to combat measles continues today, and Katz said he hoped students would work to help eradicate it.
He expressed gratitude for the Red Cross’ current eradication program—the Measles and Rubella Initiative. The initiative delivers vaccines for childhood illnesses to resource-poor nations, which accounted for many of the 145,700 deaths from measles that occurred in 2013, according to the World Health Organization. Such programs are extremely effective compared to current polio eradication initiatives because measles requires only one or two doses to attain what scientists consider to be lifelong immunity, Katz explained.
“I wish we had begun with measles eradication because we would have achieved it by now instead of polio eradication, which 15 years after the initial goal we are still chasing,” said Katz, citing the initial goal of WHO to eradicate polio by the year 2000.
When an audience member asked Katz about parents in the United States who refuse to vaccinate their children, he brought up the recent outbreak of measles in Disneyland as a prime example for why measles vaccines are still important.
“One of the problems is that parents have not seen these diseases, so they wonder why they should worry about them...but though the disease may not be here, it can be imported [from other nations],” Katz noted.
He also refuted the idea that vaccines can cause autism but acknowledged that this idea is one of the reasons for “vaccine hesitancy.”
Throughout the evening, Katz fielded a variety of other questions from students, including one about the potential use of tobacco plants to make a measles vaccine that would not have to be refrigerated.
Several students said that they found Katz’s talk very engaging and inspiring.
“The talk was really interesting,” said senior Kelly Tomins. “It was amazing to hear from one of the inventors of one of the most successful vaccines. It was really cool to hear about how they made the vaccine, and the different challenges that our world faces when delivering the vaccine—and ways to combat these using future research.”
Senior Tim Bai, president of Duke Red Cross, also expressed his appreciation for Katz sharing his experiences.
“It was great that Dr. Katz came out to speak today because we don’t normally think of measles as being an issue in our world today,” Bai said. “But in these developing countries, measles still is an issue—and a lot of people still suffer from it—so anything we can do to raise awareness, anything we can do to fundraise for this cause and reduce deaths related to measles—that’s what we do, that’s part of our cause. Dr. Katz really brought that message out today.”
The enthusiasm of the approximately 40 students in attendance for eradicating the disease was apparent to Katz as well.
“It’s a very interesting thing to try to get you guys stirred up about measles because none of you have ever had measles and have never seen a case of measles,” he joked.