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50th Anniversary of Measles Vaccine: The Man Behind the Vaccine

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Monday, 16th December ,2013

If I tell you the gentleman who developed the measles vaccine loves pistachio ice cream and used to play drums like a professional, you would wonder where I “googled” this information. To know how this icon in medicine lives his life, you will have to read on!  I can assure you that all the stories I will be sharing with you in this blog are true, as they were confirmed by my husband David, Dr. Samuel Katz’ son.

We know Dr. Katz as a great “Dad” or “Papa”.  He’s a caring grandfather to his 17 grandchildren, as you can see in one example, in a photo from the year 2000 when he was at Johns Hopkins Hospital feeding our son Sandy during his hospitalization for neuroblastoma.  These days, Dr. Katz and his wife Dr. Cathy Wilfert go from different cities to visit their grandchildren and even stay for weeks to babysit some of them.  It is always a big comfort to have two smart pediatricians babysitting your kids, especially when grandma Cathy is a gourmet cook! Dr. Katz, in his 80s, is still extremely active in his field and still travels extensively for work.

Dr. Samuel Katz, a pediatrics infectious diseases specialist, developed the measles vaccine in 1963, while he was working in Dr. John Enders’ lab at Harvard Medical School.  In case you didn’t know, Dr. Enders was awarded the Nobel prize for developing the Polio Vaccine.  Dr. Katz has always called himself or wanted to be known as the “co-inventor” of the measles vaccine because he wants to give part of this huge credit to his colleagues in the same lab, although, in reality, he did the major work.  He’s been so humble about his achievement that he didn’t even let his children know he was honored by the Center of Disease Control (CDC) for his work in measles vaccine last week, during the press release by the CDC on the 50th Anniversary of the measles vaccine.    As Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, pointed out, there are still 400 deaths of measles daily in the world!  There are 150,000 deaths from measles yearly, as it is the most infectious virus.  

In a world where Michael Jordan’s newborn made bigger news than the 175 cases of measles this year in the U.S., it is refreshing to know a man like Dr. Katz.  If you saw him and his wife Dr. Cathy Wilfert strolling through the local farmer markets in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to buy organic vegetables or goat cheese, or weed in the backyard of their five acres in the countryside of Chapel Hill, you would think they are among the local farmers.  They once had a goat living in their backyard to eat the poison ivy.  Part of the backyard has an herb garden where Cathy gathers her herbs to marinate a leg of lamb or cook some amazing dishes with the edible mushrooms she finds in the woods behind their house.  I wonder if the farmers next door even know they are living next to these “giants” in pediatrics whose work have saved millions of lives? As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, Cathy herself has done tremendous work for children.  As a physician researcher at Duke in the 1980s, Dr. Wilfert pioneered the protocol of treating HIV+ pregnant women with AZT to prevent the transmission of this terrible virus to their babies.  Her remarkable work has reduced the transmission rate of the HIV virus from mother-to-child to less than 2%. The photo above this article showed Cathy and Sam in Uganda when she was honored by the Uganda president for her work.

To spend time with this loving couple, you learn so much about everything, from classical music to sports, medicine to politics, good wine to gourmet cuisine.  Their life is simple yet sophisticated.   They love to stand by the sink in their small kitchen to watch the colorful finches landing on the unique bird feeders outside the window.  Their kitchen’s wall is full of baskets brought back from Africa, and their kitchen shelves full of pottery pieces they have collected for decades, from potters they know by names and styles.  Their bungalow is full of unique artwork from all over the globe, during their extensive travel to promote their work in vaccine and infectious diseases.

Do people know much about Sam’s work? Not as much as they know about sports and entertainment, but that’s how the world runs.  Most people don’t think of illnesses or diseases unless they have to deal with them directly.  Besides, David’s parents would not stand out as being “different”.  They are “normal” people with normal lives.  They do not name their kids after fruits or directions.  They do not demand to be treated in an extravagant way, although wherever they go, lives are saved.  I once laughed at the news of a famous singer on tour.  Wherever she stays, she must have white roses in her room, no lilacs, no tulips, no pink or red roses, only white roses.  When David and I were in Paris several years ago, a media mogul was criticized for insisting on a famous boutique to stay open after hour just for her to shop.  She was furious when the clerk refused to keep the store opened for her.  I can go on and on with the demands from our celebrities, whom many people in our society put on a pedestal.    

I know Sam and Cathy have been following our website and want them to know how proud I am to have known them.  In my eyes, they are the true heroes of humanity.  To quote Dr. Tom Frieden from the CDC Press Release on the 50th Year Anniversary of the measles vaccine:

“Now, 50 years ago, Dr. Katz and his colleagues created the measles vaccine, and that vaccine has been one of the great accomplishments not only of science and medicine, but of human kind.  A simple tally suggests that over the past 50 years, 30 million children as a minimum, at least 30 million children, survived who would have been killed by measles. That’s an astonishing number.”  

Thirty million?  That number is enough to fill several countries!  A life of a child, furthermore, will expand into many generations, so this measles vaccine have gone beyond the 30 million lives.  Knowing Dr. Katz, he probably shrugged his shoulders and said to himself “ I had to do what I had to do.  That was my job.”, the same way I often say to myself when a patient shows such gratefulness after a safe delivery. 

About 12 years ago, Jenny McCarthy, a Hollywood actress, accused childhood vaccines of causing autism.  She was invited to the Oprah’s show to voice her inaccurate view on this topic.  There was a media frenzy over this controversy which is no longer controversial.  In 2011, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher who started this outrageous rumor and allowed it to spread like wild fire, lost his medical license.  His paper on the link between vaccines and autism has since been retracted from the prestigious Lancet medical journal.  It turned out that he was misleading the public by fraudulently altering the medical histories of all 12 patients he used as subjects of this 1998 study.  Many children were denied the measles vaccine and Dr. Katz was saddened that pockets of measles started emerging all over the world.  The CDC noted that more cases of measles were reported in 2008 than in any other year since 1999 with more than 90% those infected not having been vaccinated. This unfortunate incident showed me how a celebrity’s ignorance, combined with fraudulent or misleading research, can really damage many lives.  I have never watched the show “The View” nor did I have time to watch and comprehend the wisdom or unwisdom of Oprah on this subject, but I heard McCarthy is on the panel of “ The View” show.  Be careful what you hear from this panel since it could be a “misleading view”. 

So on this day, several days after all the media stations got excited about the newly released online album of Beyonce, I would like to salute my father in law Dr. Samuel Katz, for all the lives his measles vaccine has saved (I am sure he is blushing as he reads this blog).  He and I would agree, however, that between him and Michael Jordan, a child will readily pick Michael Jordan as his hero.  He would rather dine with his basketball star.   

“Who is this Dr. Katz?  The man who was responsible for an extra shot in my arm? No way I would want to spend time with him!” 

Realistically, wouldn’t you rather dine with your favorite actor or singer or the president than your doctor? We doctors remind you of illnesses and mortality, not necessarily good health, while an actor can help you temporarily forget about the hardship of this real world by entertaining your mind.  Only on your sick bed would you scream out: 

“Mr. Obama can wait, can I please see my doctor now?” 

Knowing Dr. Samuel Katz, he would be laughing heartily at this scenario and say:

“But of course the boy should see Michael Jordan! It would be more fun than seeing me!” 

At the end, most of us know how our lives are much improved by many “unsung” heroes, whether they are healthcare providers or firefighters, police officers, farmers or teachers.  All of these folks make life safe and comfortable for us to sit and watch a sport game or a concert. It was wonderful that the CDC reminded Dr. Samuel Katz how much he changed the world of childhood infectious diseases.  Maybe next time, he should alert the children of these honorable events so that they can all give him a shout out and tell him how proud they are of him, even when he cannot make a three pointer like Michael Jordan, or sing like Beyonce.  


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