Sam Katz is truly a giant in the field of vaccines, and is considered one of the world’s most prominent vaccinologists. In the 1950s, while at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital, Sam collaborated with Nobel prize winner John F. Enders (who isolated the polio virus) to create the attenuated measles virus vaccine. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Alfred I. duPont Award for Excellence in Children’s Health Care and the first ever St. Geme Award of the seven Pediatric Societies. And, like me, Sam is a true chocoholic.
~Stanford T. Shulman, MD
Dr. Shulman: What are your thoughts regarding the possibility of completely eradicating polio from the planet?
Dr. Katz: I am pessimistic. India has eliminated endemic polio (not eradicated but managed); this is remarkable because until last year they were one of the only four countries with persisting polio. But in northern Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the disease persists. Just recently, one of the Taliban leaders in northwestern Pakistan said he will not permit the UNICEF polio program that was supposed to inoculate 161,000 kids under the age of 5 years because he said it might somehow be an American espionage tactic. It’s so much a matter of what the governments and other leaders in those countries are doing — or not doing.
Dr. Shulman: What new vaccines do you foresee becoming available over the next decade?
Dr. Katz: On this topic, I’m very much an optimist. The fields of virology and molecular biology have been moving along so excitingly in the last few years. I would be surprised if we don’t have vaccines for malaria and tuberculosis in the next decade. Also, I think we will have them for shigella, group B meningococcus, group B streptococcus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), dengue fever, and herpes 1 and 2.The “Holy Grail” is a vaccine for HIV. Again, here I am an optimist. I think it’s possible we will have one in the next decade. The basic work going on now is the determination of what are the components of the immune response.
Dr. Shulman: Do you think the tide has turned in the anti-vaccination sentiment in this country?
Dr. Katz: It’s not better, it’s worse. It’s very discouraging. The anti-vaccine movement involves a whole spectrum of groups. They can be libertarians who don’t want people telling them what to do; there are those who think vaccines have ill effects like diabetes and autism, and then there are people who are just too relaxed about it all because they don’t know how bad these diseases are. Then there are others that are anti-vaccine because of religious reasons.Mostly it’s to do with ignorance. Our very success has been our worst enemy. It’s not just today’s parents we have to worry about, but young health workers as well — nurses, doctors, and others. Unless they’ve worked in global health, they’ve not seen these diseases before, so the pressure to push for these vaccines may be less than in preceding generations.Another part of it is that each state makes its own vaccination laws, and discussions and legislations about exemptions from vaccinations go on every day. In some Pacific Northwest states, there is about a 10% exemptions rate.
Dr. Shulman: What advice would you give a practitioner who is just starting out?
Dr. Katz: It’s remarkable and wonderful, but the kinds of diseases that used to only occur in childhood such as cystic fibrosis (although not an infectious disease) are no longer automatically fatal, but chronic conditions. So, transitioning patients into adulthood is very important. Family practitioners in particular need to be aware of this.
Dr. Shulman: What do you like to do with your free time?
Dr. Katz: I enjoy riding my bike through the countryside where we live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. I am very pleased that at 85 I can still ride my bike.