In Anti-Vaxxer Hot Spot, Measles Continues to Spread

In our weekly news roundup: health officials scramble to contain a measles outbreak, national parks recover from the government shutdown, and more.

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A measles outbreak spreading throughout the Pacific Northwest got even more worrying this week, as two children exposed to the virus travelled thousands of miles from Washington state to Hawaii.

At least 32 of those infected with measles in the Pacific Northwest had not been vaccinated against the disease.

Though the kids were not contagious during their flight, health officials on the Big Island quarantined the family upon arrival and confirmed that they have since returned home. “They are gone, thankfully,” Dr. Sarah Park, the state’s epidemiologist, told The Oregonian.

In total, some 40 cases of measles have been confirmed so far in Washington and neighboring Oregon. At least 32 of those infected had not been vaccinated against the respiratory disease, which in rare cases can be deadly. Following earlier decisions by several counties, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday declared a state of emergency to mobilize and contain the outbreak.

Though children routinely gain protection through the MMR shot for measles, mumps, and rubella, parents often receive exemptions for school entry on religious or other personal grounds. In Clark County, Washington, where the outbreak originated, the vaccination rate sits at 78 percent, well below what’s required to ensure herd immunity.

Across the globe in the Philippines, political unrest regarding a dengue vaccine led to a massive drop in the belief that inoculations are important, from 93 percent in 2015 to just 32 percent in 2018. This, along with weak immunization programs, health officials say, contributed to a five-fold increase in cases in 2018, compared to the previous year.

Back in the U.S., health officials in Georgia confirmed three family members — none of whom were vaccinated — have also come down with the disease. Though no other cases have yet been detected, the Georgia Department of Public Health is advising anyone who suspects they have been exposed to call their health care provider first, rather than risking spread of the virus by visiting a doctor’s office or clinic.

And while some parents remain staunch in their belief in debunked claims regarding vaccines, a handful of their teenage children have turned to Reddit for advice.

“I am writing because I am the 15-year-old son of an anti-vaccine parent,” one user wrote last year. “I have spent the last four years trying to convince my mother that vaccines are safe. I haven’t succeeded.” In a phone call with Undark, the Minnesota high schooler noted that after a conversation with his doctor, his mother did allow him to be immunized against polio and tetanus. However, he said he’ll likely have to wait until he turns 18 to receive any other vaccinations.

Also in the news:

• The U.S. government shutdown may have delayed paychecks and snarled air travel, but it didn’t stop the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from pressing on with a controversial plan to sell oil and gas leases near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, a region considered sacred by Native American tribes. According to a report from the Associated Press, critics complain that the Bureau didn’t release information about the sale, and they question whether an adequate study of environmental impacts can still be completed before the land goes to auction next month. “It’s a mistake that while critical public services were shuttered for 35 days during the government shutdown, BLM still moved forward with this opaque process,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) told the AP. A BLM spokesperson indicated that the auction will be pushed back by a couple of weeks, to March 28, to accommodate a 10-day public protest period. The lands surrounding Chaco, a world heritage site, are among the few in the San Juan Basin that have yet to be tapped for drilling. Last year, protests by tribes and environmentalists led Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to scrap a previous plan to lease parcels in the area. (Associated Press)

• At first glance, “Inference: International Review of Science” may look like any other scholarly publication. The website features pieces on topics ranging from biology to anthropology to linguistics, is backed by an impressive board of editors, and counts among its contributors revered academics including Noam Chomsky and George Ellis. But as physicist and science writer Adam Becker discovered, sprinkled among its seemingly genuine articles are pieces arguing against the theory of evolution and dismissing the consensus on human-driven global warming. What’s more, tax documents and other filings show the entirety of Inference’s $1.7 million operating budget during its first three years came from venture capitalist Peter Thiel. While Thiel, a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, does fund legitimate science through his Breakout Labs, he’s also backed controversial offshore testing of an experimental vaccine for herpes. No stranger to the media, in 2016 Thiel funded the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker Media. To date, Inference has not acknowledged Thiel’s backing of the publication and it’s unclear whether he has any involvement in its editorial operations. (Undark)

• Damage caused to Joshua Tree National Park during the government shutdown will linger for centuries, according to a former park superintendent who spoke at a rally last Saturday. Unlike in the past, national parks remained open during the shutdown but were grossly understaffed. At Joshua Tree, only eight law-enforcement rangers were left on duty to patrol an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Many of the park’s namesake trees were damaged during the shutdown, and some were even cut down by visitors to create new roads. Joshua Trees, a member of the yucca family, live up to 150 years on average in the Mojave Desert. Since the park fully reopened on Monday, staff have been working to clean up overflowing public toilets and trash cans and to repair the damage where possible. Locals and park advocates now worry that a second shutdown being threatened by President Trump will only result in further harm to the park. John Lauretig, a former ranger and leader of the nonprofit Friends of Joshua Tree told The New York Times, “If the government doesn’t fund or staff the parks appropriately, then they should just close the parks to protect the parks and protect the people.” (Smithsonian Magazine)

• If true wisdom resides in knowing that we know nothing at all, a recent study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior offers further evidence that many Americans and Europeans — at least on the subject of genetically modified foods — are very unwise indeed. The study, conducted by a multi-institutional team of researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, the University of Toronto, the University of Washington in St. Louis, and the University of Pennsylvania, surveyed some 2,000 participants on their disposition — and the intensity of that disposition — toward foods classified as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Then they asked them some basic, true/false science questions designed to suss out participants’ knowledge on whether, say, the core of the Earth is hot or cold, or whether an ordinary tomato has genes. The result: Those who described themselves as being most emphatically opposed to GMOs were the least scientifically literate. The findings are in keeping with previous studies showing the proclivity in many people to ignore evidence when it runs counter to their most cherished beliefs. “This result is perverse, but is consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism,” said Colorado researcher Phil Fernbach in a press release accompanying the new study. “Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do.” (NPR)

• And finally: Those who wish to watch more TV, spend more time with friends and family, and generally feel more satisfied with their lives may want to deactivate their Facebook accounts, even if just for four weeks, according to a new study conducted by economists at Stanford and New York University. For the study, which has not yet undergone peer review, the researchers recruited 2,844 Facebook users who admitted to spending more than 15 minutes per day on the network, and measured their well-being via surveys, email, and daily text messages. “I was way less stressed … I felt more content” responded one participant in an interview. “I realized how much time I was wasting. I now have time for other things,” wrote another. In fact, the study found that the experience improved the subjective well-being of most participants, who overall reported feeling happier, less depressed and less anxious. But all the downsides of having an active account, the authors write, “should not obscure the basic fact that [Facebook] fulfills deep and widespread needs.” Their results suggest that the network does in fact keep users informed about current events, even if it does polarize their views, and can be “a source of entertainment” and “a vital social lifeline for those who are otherwise isolated.” (Vice)

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2 comments / Join the Discussion

    I worry that comments like “as physicist and science writer Adam Becker discovered, sprinkled among its seemingly genuine articles are pieces arguing against the theory of evolution and dismissing the consensus on human-driven global warming.” are barely removed from censoring dissent. There is nothing wrong with these poppycock theories presented as seriously as better science and as their authors intended. Indeed, suppressing them is wickedly dangerous and the route to authoritarianism. They will not survive in the marketplace of ideas – let them compete.
    I suppose that there are ideas that are beyond the pale – Jim Jones and company. But creationism? Or doubt about human agency in global warming. You can’t hide from these ideas by banning them. They need to be exposed. Their underlying implications shown to be untrue.

    Reply

    I disagree. Such a venue lends credibility to pseudo-science. I would approve of the following however:

    Foreach article {

    publish article
    solicit rebuttal
    Allow secondary article re: rebuttal.
    solicit secondary rebuttal
    solicit summary of both.

    }

    This could be extended with an announcement: “Soliciting summary overview article on current evolutionary theory and alternatives.”

    This would show up bad science, which is not limited to crackpot science.

    Reply
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