50 Years After Measles Vaccination Was Developed, US Threat Still High

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

In the 1950s and early 60s, Dr. John Franklin Enders, who was known as “The Father of Modern vaccines,” with the aid of Dr. Thomas C. Peebles, then of the Children’s Hospital Boston, and Samuel L. Katz, MD, professor emeritus of Duke University, worked to develop a new vaccine that would rescue America from one of the most contagious diseases in the world: measles.

Now, fifty years after the approval of the extremely effective measles vaccine, the disease still poses a threat to domestic and global health security.  On average, 430 children die each day due to measles infection around the world. In 2011, there were about 158,000 deaths attributed to measles.

In the US, measles was largely eliminated in 2000, and a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, shows that measles elimination in the US was sustained through at least 2011; elimination is defined as absence of continuous disease transmission for longer than 12 months.

Mark J. Papania, MD, MPH, of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and colleagues, warn, however, that importation continues on an international scale and that American doctors should suspect measles in children with high fever and rash, especially after international travel or contact with foreign visitors, and should report suspected cases immediately to local health departments.

Before the US had an effective vaccine for measles, the highly-infectious disease was a year-round threat. Prior to 1963, nearly every child had become infected with measles in the US; as many as 48,000 people were hospitalized each year, 7,000 had seizures, 1,000 suffered permanent brain damage or deafness and about 500 had died.

Today, people who are infected with measles continue to cause outbreaks in areas with unvaccinated people, which often includes young children. While being largely eradicated in the US, it is still a serious illness worldwide, with one in five children being hospitalized. In the US, healthcare professionals report about 60 cases per year. However, the 2013 measles outbreak has been the worst in years – 175 cases at last count – nearly all linked to foreign travel.

“A measles outbreak anywhere is a risk everywhere,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH. “The steady arrival of measles in the United States is a constant reminder that deadly diseases are testing our health security every day. Someday, it won’t be only measles at the international arrival gate; so, detecting diseases before they arrive is a wise investment in U.S. health security.”

Health experts note that eliminating measles on a global scale has benefits that reach far beyond the number of lives saved each year. Stopping measles in its tracks can also help researchers stop other diseases from running rampant through societies. The CDC and its partners have been building a global health security network that can easily be scaled up to deal with multiple emerging threats.

Thanks to global outreach, one in five countries can now rapidly detect, respond to, or prevent global health threats caused by emerging diseases. By improving disease response overseas, which includes strengthening surveillance and lab systems, training healthcare workers and building facilities to investigate outbreaks, we can make the world – and the United States – a safer, more secure place.

“There may be a misconception that infectious diseases are over in the industrialized world. But in fact, infectious diseases continue to be, and will always be, with us. Global health and protecting our country go hand in hand,” Dr. Frieden said.

There are at least five sources that are a threat to today’s health security. These include emergence and spread of new microbes; globalization of travel and food supply; the rise of drug-resistant pathogens; acceleration of biological science capabilities and the risk that these capabilities may lead to inadvertent or intentional release of pathogens; and concerns of terrorist acquisition, development and use of biological agents.

“With patterns of global travel and trade, disease can spread nearly anywhere within 24 hours,” Dr. Frieden said in a statement. “That’s why the ability to detect, fight, and prevent these diseases must be developed and strengthened overseas, and not just here in the United States.”

Katz, who played a major role in the development of the measles vaccine in 1963, is being honored by the CDC 50 years after the historic achievement. A ceremony to celebrate Katz’ work on the fight against measles is ongoing and global health leaders are taking this time to highlight the domestic importance of global health security, how far we have come to reduce the burden of measles and the prospects of eradicating the disease worldwide.

While measles can be eliminated, the fact that it is so contagious means that complete vaccination is required to stop it in its tracks and prevent sustained outbreaks. Such strides have already been implemented — the CDC has been part of a global campaign to vaccinate the world and since 2001, more than a billion children have received vaccination from measles. Over the past decade, these vaccinations have averted some 10 million deaths – a fifth of all deaths prevented by modern medicine.

“The challenge is not whether we shall see a world without measles, but when,” Dr. Katz said.

“No vaccine is the work of a single person, but no single person had more to do with the creation of the measles vaccine than Dr. Katz,” said Alan Hinman, MD, MPH, Director for Programs, Center for Vaccine Equity, Task Force for Global Health. “Although the measles virus had been isolated by others, it was Dr. Katz’s painstaking work passing the virus from one culture to another that finally resulted in a safe form of the virus that could be used as a vaccine.”

While the work to eradicate measles on a global scale falls in the hands of health experts, such as those with the CDC, anyone and everyone can join the fight to end measles transmission. People can start by visiting their healthcare provider and making sure they are up to date on all their vaccinations, including for measles.

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