Protecting What's Precious
Millions of young lives have been saved in large part by the pioneering work of Samuel Katz and Catherine Wilfert. Now the longtime Duke pediatricians have created a legacy to help save billions of young lives still at risk around the world.
He: a co-creator of the measles vaccine.
She: a fervent fighter against pediatric AIDS.
This spring, pediatrician Samuel Katz, MD, was awarded the 2007 Pollin Prize— the largest international honor bestowed for pediatric research. Katz combined the $100,000 prize with $50,000 from his 2006 Alfred I. DuPont Award for Excellence in Children’s Health Care to seed an endowment in honor of pediatrician Catherine Wilfert, MD, his wife. This endowment will fund a research fellowship in global pediatric infectious diseases—a field in which Wilfert has been a passionate leader for many years.
Thanks to an outpouring of support from friends, colleagues and admirers, as well as funding from Duke University Health System, the School of Medicine, and the Department of Pediatrics, the original goal of $750,000 was surpassed less than three months after the creation of this endowment was made public this past January. The total has now climbed to nearly $1 million—a fitting testament to the priceless contributions both Katz and Wilfert have made to children’s health.
Wilfert: A passion to reach the world
Catherine Wilfert, MD, spent 27 years on Duke’s faculty, searching for new treatments for and immunizations against infectious diseases that affect children. When HIV/AIDS emerged, her focus turned to the eradication of pediatric AIDS; she led a pediatric network whose clinical trials demonstrated the efficacy of using doses of AZT to reduce the incidence of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. As a result of these findings, pediatric AIDS reported in infants less than two years old in the United States dropped by 75 percent in the ensuing decade.
For the last 12 years, Wilfert has concentrated on reducing mother-to-infant transmission of AIDS in developing countries. In 1996 she became the scientific director of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which supports research and services for millions of women around the world. Although their projects in 17 countries have reached almost four million women, she says the foundation’s success is just “a drop in the bucket” of reducing pediatric HIV infections, and that it will remain her passion. “I think it’s possible to reach people,” she says. “This is so much a global community, and it will become ever more so.… A lot of people know one another who never would have crossed paths before this [epidemic]. And that’s a good thing, both internationally and nationally. So if there is something good about this awful disease, I think it is the strengths of the people who are coping with it, and helping others to learn and to cope with it.”
Wilfert was inducted to the prestigious Institute of Medicine in 1999—as was her husband, Samuel Katz, in 1982.
Katz: The ambassador of immunization
Early in his career, Samuel Katz, MD, became fascinated with the measles virus and was instrumental in developing a vaccine for the disease. His first human test subject was himself: Following extensive tests in cell cultures and then monkeys, he inoculated himself and then his colleagues in the laboratory with safety-tested vaccine material for use in humans. The vaccine was licensed in 1963; by 1968 the incidence of measles in the United States had plummeted by 90 percent.
Katz then traveled to Nigeria, where he conducted studies that proved the vaccine to be safe and effective even in infants who were suffering from malnutrition, malaria, and other infections. In numerous trips to Central and South American, Asian, and sub-Saharan nations, Katz advocated for the use of the measles vaccine to protect infants and children. He served on committees of the World Health Organization and other groups to foster the availability of vaccines against measles and other diseases for infants and children globally. By 2005, the vaccine had reduced the number of worldwide measles deaths from eight million annually to less than 500,000.
Today, Katz is the Wilburt Cornell Davison Professor and Chairman Emeritus of the Duke Department of Pediatrics, after serving more than two decades as chair of the department. The Pollin Prize followed fast on the heels of his receiving the 2007 Triangle Business Journal Health Care Heroes Lifetime Achievement Award.
To support the Wilfert Endowment, which will fund a fellowship for research to improve the health of children around the world, please send your contribution to The Catherine Wilfert, MD Fellowship Fund, 512 S. Mangum Street, Suite 400, Durham, NC 27701.