Measles vaccine developer warns Jewish anti-vaxxers

Ultra-Orthodox communities refusing the 50-year-old vaccine were linked to a third of US measles cases last year

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

An illustrative photo of a patient receiving an injection. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)
An illustrative photo of a patient receiving an injection. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

With almost no measles in the United States since the 1990s, today’s generation of American parents are not familiar with the disease and buy in too easily to the anti-vaccination movement currently in vogue, said measles vaccine developer Dr. Samuel Katz.

“Unless you have worked in Sub-Saharan Africa, you have no anxiety to protect against it,” Katz said.

The last surviving member of the team of researchers that developed the measles vaccine 50 years ago believes it is “ludicrous,” however, to get upset over the Center for Disease Control’s December 5 announcement that there were 175 cases of the disease in the United States in 2013, a tripling of the annual average.

Notably, 58 of those cases were among Hasidic Jews in the Brooklyn’s Boro Park and Williamsburg neighborhoods. It was the largest outbreak of measles in the US since 1996.

“It’s all so relative,” said Katz, who was honored last week by the CDC. “True, there were 175 cases in the US so far this year, but there are 3-4 million cases a year worldwide. In Western Europe alone there are 25,000 cases per year.”

Dr. Samuel Katz was honored this year, the 50th anniversary of his developing the measles vaccine. (photo credit: courtesy of Samuel Katz)
Dr. Samuel Katz was honored this year, the 50th anniversary of his developing the measles vaccine. (photo credit: courtesy of Samuel Katz)

On an average day, 430 children die of measles worldwide. In 2011, there were an estimated 158,000 measles deaths.

In a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Katz, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Duke University, emphasized that the measles cases in the US were all the result of the importation of the virus from other countries.

“We can tell this by looking at the genetics of the virus. We can even tell what country it came from,” Katz said.

“We are about to declare the Western Hemisphere measles- and rubella-free, except for importation,” said Katz’s colleague, Dr. Louis Z. Cooper, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Columbia University. Cooper is an expert on the rubella vaccine and consults with the World Health Organization on infectious diseases.

“This outbreak is a reminder that there are under-immunized pockets, and that we are only an airplane ride away from countries where measles hasn’t been wiped out,” he told The Times of Israel.

The CDC reported that the outbreak last spring in Hasidic Brooklyn was caused by an intentionally unvaccinated 17-year-old who was infected with measles after a trip to England.

Among the Brooklyn cases, 21 percent were among children too young to have received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. In Boro Park, there were 28 cases, all members of three extended families who had refused to vaccinate their children.

The primary reasons for lack of vaccination among the 30 infected in Williamsburg were refusal and delay to vaccinate.

Although there were no deaths associated with the outbreak, Hamodia quoted a New York City Health Department spokeswoman as saying that there had been two hospitalizations, a miscarriage, and a case of pneumonia associated among those infected with measles.

Katz warned it could be much worse. He said that in slightly less than 1 in 1000 cases, a child can develop encephalitis from measles, and that during a recent outbreak in France, almost a quarter of the cases required hospitalization.

Dr. Louis Z. Cooper is concerned about 'under-immunized pockets' in the US. (photo credit: courtesy of Louis Z. Cooper)
Dr. Louis Z. Cooper is concerned about ‘under-immunized pockets’ in the US. (photo credit: courtesy of Louis Z. Cooper)

In 2010, there was an outbreak of mumps among 1,500 Jewish boys and young men in Brooklyn. In that case, an 11-year-old boy brought the virus back from Britain and infected other boys at an Orthodox summer camp in Sullivan County, New York. These boys in turn carried the disease back to their home communities in Brooklyn.

At that time, Dr. Eli Rosen published an open letter in a Crown Heights publication emphasizing that the illness is preventable, and urging the community to get vaccinated.

Katz hopes parents separate information from misinformation about vaccinations. Many attribute the high rate of measles infection in Western Europe in part to the now-discredited report by Andrew Wakefield, a British former doctor who was disbarred after he published a fraudulent 1998 paper in The Lancet claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

“It was a temporal, not causal relationship,” Katz said about the vaccine and autism.

Cooper asserted while it is important to keep this year’s minor outbreak in the US in perspective, there is no reason to put children painfully at risk for a totally preventable disease.

“In the US, we protect religious freedoms, but we end up tying ourselves in knots. I can’t find any justification for their archaic views,” he said of religious groups who refuse to immunize their children. “Immunology has its own set of rules.”

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