Vaccine creator “surprised” at NZ record on measles

Photo credit: Duke University

The Ministry of Health says it is stockpiling MMR vaccine to fight an outbreak of measles, cases of which have been reported at 10 times the usual annual number for the year to date.

The spread of measles, which has been most pronounced in regions of the South Island and Auckland, has been blamed by experts on New Zealand’s low rate of vaccination of young children relative to other developed countries.

The scientist who helped develop the vaccine for measles, Dr Samuel Katz, Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at Duke University told the Science Media Centre that research conclusively showed the measles vaccine to be “safe and effective” and that it helped stop spread of one of the most highly transmissable infectious disease.

He comments:

“It is surprising to learn that a country with a reasonable economy should lag in the use of effective, safe vaccines to protect their infants and children. I know that when you experienced an outbreak of meningococcal B infections, the mobilisation of a vaccine response (Professor Diana Lennon and colleagues) brought this to an end.”

In response to questions posed by the SMC, Dr Katz adds:

What do you believe explains the relatively low level of immunisation in some western countries such as New Zealand and what are the consequences if the rate of immunisation for measles isn’t improved?

“Because in most countries who can afford vaccine programs many of the formerly common childhood infections no longer cause major outbreaks, young parents as well as health care workers are often unfamiliar with the morbidity and mortality that may result from them.

“Measles vaccine has been available for more than 45 years and in those countries where it has been widely accepted and used, measles is almost  an invisible disease.

“Instead of 3 or 4 million cases a year (20% of whom were hospitalized with complications, most often pneumonia or gastroenteritis) prior to vaccine, we have had fewer than 100 cases per year over the past decade in the U.S. Those few cases almost all result from importations. This is true throughout the western hemisphere In the absence of universal immunisation, an importation can lead to a cluster of cases or an outbreak among the unvaccinated. Measles is the most highly transmissible of the vaccine-preventable infectious diseases.

What does the latest research say about the safety and effectiveness of vaccination for measles? Is there any scientific basis for parents not vaccinating their children?

“Measles vaccine is both safe and effective. Repeated studies in Europe and North America have totally disproven the claim that MMR led to autism and bowel disturbances. As with any biological item, there are unusual adverse reactions (allergic, hematologic, neurologic) but these are
extraordinarily rare.”

As one of the scientists who came up with the measles vaccine, how do you feel about parents refusing the vaccine for their children in wealthy Western countries when children in the developing world still have limited access to vaccination?

“We are participating in a campaign called the Measles Initiative to reduce the death toll of measles in the resource-poor nations of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Prior to vaccine, WHO estimated there were 6 million deaths annually from measles. As recently as 10 years ago this had been reduced to about 1 million with the use of vaccine.

“However, even that was intolerable so the program was started in 2001 to bring vaccine to as many of these children as possible,  and has successfully reduced deaths to about 200,000 per year.

“The virus is the same as that encountered throughout the world, but these children suffer from malaria, malnutrition, HIV and/or intestinal parasites so that measle infection pushes them over the brink. Children in “wealthy” nations do not suffer that sort of mortality (1 per 500 measles cases rather than 5-10% of them) but 20% end up in hospital and some of them may be left with enduring sequelae (pulmonary, neurologic, hearing, visual).


Further Information

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