A few short weeks ago the world learned that for the first time ever that more than two thirds of the world’s children were protected against rubella and that 80 countries had effectively eliminated the disease. This is a significant milestone in the progress to one day rid the world of this debilitating and life altering disease, but is also somewhat bitter sweet as one of the leading figures in the fight against rubella, Dr. Louis Cooper, passed away shortly before the announcement was made by the World Health Organization. Dr. Cooper was one of the first physicians in the U.S. to consider the long-term effects of congenital rubella syndrome and helped to create programs in the U.S. to provide support to those affected by congenital rubella syndrome as well as their families. In addition to his work with patients he was also a stalwart advocate who helped to influence the passing of several seminal health policies that continue to support children and families across the country. As we celebrate the recent progress in eliminating rubella we would like to take a moment to remember and reflect on the significant contributions of Dr. Louis Cooper and the foundation that he helped to build to protect children around the world.
Dr. Louis Cooper, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics, Columbia University and past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, began his medical career in the 1950’s initially specializing in internal medicine and working in Boston as well as in Labrador, Newfoundland while serving in the US Air Force. It was not until 1964 that Dr. Cooper entered the pediatric field when an opportunity arose in New York City to work with other experts on the development of a rubella vaccine at New York University Medical Center-Bellevue Hospital. From 1964-1965 the U.S. was experiencing one of the largest outbreaks of rubella in its history, with millions of reported cases and over 20,000 children born with serious debilitations due to congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). As one of the only locations that could effective diagnose a rubella infection in the city Dr. Cooper personally saw hundreds of mothers and children with suspected infections directly in his lab.
To simply study these children with CRS for his research was out of the question for Dr. Cooper, as it would be unthinkable to him to not provide health services to these children and families in need. As a result, Dr. Cooper went to the Health Department to request additional staff and with funding support from the March of Dimes was able to establish a clinic to provide these critical services. This clinic was the beginning of what eventually evolved into what became known as the Rubella Project. The Rubella projected provided multidisciplinary medical, educational, and social service support to hundreds of children with CRS in the New York City area for over 40 years and helped to translate scientific findings into advancing public policy.
Based on his experiences with the Rubella Project and seeing firsthand the special long-term needs of children and families affected by CRS, Dr. Cooper began his work as an advocate reaching out to policy makers at the state and federal level to bring about significant changes to help these families. Through these efforts he helped to get on the books the very first federal legislation focused on special education needs, the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Assistance Act of 1968, which is still a part of the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Throughout the rest of his life Dr. Cooper remained a steadfast advocate for improvements in child health systems, with a special emphasis on measles and rubella vaccination programs. His work as an advocate included partnering with the CDC to engage pediatricians internationally, appearing on PBS’s series RX for Child Survival as a panel expert, and of course, work with the Measles & Rubella Initiative.
As aptly described in a profile article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Cooper did indeed “Fight like hell” for better health care for kids. His determination and drive to ensure that children were receiving the best health care possible and were protected against preventable diseases like measles and rubella will continue to be an inspiration to all those who follow in his legacy. While we in the Measles & Rubella Initiative mourn his passing we also will always remember all that he contributed to the work we continue to do and hope to honor his memory by one day achieving a world without measles and rubella.
Note: For more information on Dr. Louis Z Cooper’s life and work please visit the AAP’s Oral History Project for a detailed interview.