In Vaccine Mandate Discussions, Misinformation Still Looms Large

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As measles outbreaks continue to pop up across the country, at least two-dozen states have introduced bills that would make it easier for parents to opt their school-aged children out of otherwise required vaccinations.

In Arizona, for example, one bill sponsored by Republican Nancy Barto would provide for religious exemptions to immunizations for K-12 students, while another would require physicians to provide parents with additional information on vaccine ingredients and risks, along with instructions on how to report adverse reactions. And in Texas — where 10 cases of measles have been confirmed so far this year — a bill introduced last month seeks to make non-medical exemption forms available online so parents no longer have to request them from the state’s department of health.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that no bills expanding non-medical exemptions have actually passed since 2003, this recent push, health care providers say, is reinforced by the proliferation of misinformation shared through websites, books, documentaries, and social media — something Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston calls “the anti-vaccine media empire.”

Outside of a U.S. Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, where 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger described his experience growing up in an anti-vaccine household, protestors from various state advocacy groups lined the halls. With names like Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom and New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights, many of these groups frame the issue of vaccination in terms of individual liberty, while at the same time citing the repeatedly-debunked claim that vaccines cause autism and sharing content from anti-vaccine advocates like Larry Cook and “Vaxxed” producer Del Bigtree.

Members of these groups praised Senator Rand Paul’s comments at the hearing, in which he spoke out against the idea of government-mandated vaccines. Currently, the majority of states allow non-medical exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who announced his resignation this week, had previously mentioned the possibility of federal intervention to curb the growing push for exemptions, though it remains unclear whether regulators under President Trump — known to issue dubious anti-vaccination sentiments of his own — would take such steps. Meanwhile, even state-level efforts to limit exemptions often leave wiggle room for those seeking to avoid vaccines. Two bills moving through the Washington state legislature, for example, would still make provisions for opting out on religious grounds.

Anti-vaccine sentiment and discussion of mandating immunizations isn’t limited to the United States. In Italy, the government had scrapped compulsory vaccinations for schoolchildren before reinstating the mandate last fall in response to a spike in measles cases. France, Slovakia, and Poland, among other countries, also mandate certain vaccines.

Even so, loopholes remain. Last month, a 5-year-old boy from France was suspected of reintroducing measles to Costa Rice while on vacation with his family. The boy was unvaccinated, as the country’s mandate only applies to children born on or after January 1, 2018.

Whether or not tougher regulations are implemented in the U.S., public health officials have called for increased federal funding and a national campaign to counter anti-vaccine messaging. Following moves by YouTube and Pinterest to demonetize or limit searches for anti-vaccine content, Facebook announced Thursday that it would be taking action against misinformation as well.

Also in the news:

• An investigation by The Los Angeles Times has put the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the hot seat. On Tuesday the paper reported that, in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the EPA declined NASA’s offer to collect air quality samples over the Houston region, where residents were complaining of burning throats, nausea, and dizziness after the storm caused more than 100 toxic releases. NASA’s DC-8 jet — capable of analyzing more than 450 air-pollutant compounds — was reportedly poised for a fly-over when NASA scientists were unexpectedly rebuffed by David Gray, EPA’s deputy regional administrator in Texas, and Michael Honeycutt, Texas’s director of toxicology. Honeycutt, a controversial figure who once suggested that tighter ozone regulations would be harmful to people’s health, maintained at the time that the state’s own air quality data showed no cause for concern. Six weeks later, he was appointed chairman of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. The day after The Times’ piece ran, Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology launched an investigation into the ordeal. “If this is true,” they wrote, “it is not only an embarrassment, it is unacceptable.” (The Los Angeles Times)

• The World Wide Fund for Nature, the global conservation charity with the iconic panda logo, was accused this week of funding and equipping guards who tortured, sexually assaulted, and killed locals in national parks throughout Asia and Africa in its efforts to fight poaching of endangered wildlife. A yearlong Buzzfeed News investigation claims to have uncovered thousands of documents, including confidential internal reports showing that WWF-funded anti-poaching “eco-guards” used abusive interrogation techniques on suspected poachers, often despite scant evidence, and carried out violent raids on indigenous communities in several countries, including Nepal and Cameroon. Buzzfeed also alleges WWF staffers were made aware of the human rights violations perpetrated by these anti-poaching units, including civilian casualties, in a 2015 internal report, but failed to report the incidents to the organization’s leadership. On Monday, a WWF spokesperson said in response to the allegations “[r]espect for human rights is at the core of our mission,” and that the organization would be commissioning an independent investigation to look into the incidents. (BuzzFeed News)

• A lesson in modern journalistic credulity — and perhaps the value of fact-checking — emerged late last week when the technology website Gizmodo published a long exposé on Dr. Damian Jacob Markiewicz Sendler, a widely-quoted expert on everything from necrophilia and zoophilia to lethal erotic asphyxiation and sexual assault. Such provocative topics, plucked from the darkest corners of the human condition, percolate almost daily in the fever swamp of online publishing, where websites must wrestle for clicks to survive. And Sendler, it seems, stood ready to serve, offering up dubious analyses and sensational quotes calibrated perfectly to titillate while maintaining an air of legitimacy. Gizmodo made a convincing case that Sendler is a fraud — someone with just enough exposure to the sciences to sound the right notes, but with a highly embellished, and sometimes patently invented CV, perhaps reminding journalists from Vice, The Huffington Post, Forbes, IFLScience and other publications featuring Sendler’s musings that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Most of these sites have now issued corrections or excised Sendler’s comments entirely, while Sendler himself took to his personal website on Sunday to respond. For the most part, he seemed to blame journalists for not understanding his work: “I hoped that working with reporters would demystify seemingly controversial topics,” Sendler wrote. “Apparently very few reporters take the time to read research papers thoroughly before interviewing scientists.” (Gizmodo)

• A new depression drug called esketamine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday. With a chemical composition similar to the anesthetic ketamine, the drug gives doctors a new option for treating patients with major depressive disorder who have not benefited from or have stopped responding to existing medications like Prozac. Esketamine has been developed into a nasal spray by Johnson & Johnson and will be marketed under the brand name Spravato. Qualified patients will receive Spravato at certified treatment centers, where they will be monitored for changes in blood pressure, sedative effects, and hallucinations one to two hours after treatment. Patients also will not be able to drive until the day after treatment; most will begin with two treatments per week, eventually tapering to once weekly for long term maintenance. Given the need for monitoring, however, and the drug’s cost, health care providers are proceeding with caution. Many doctors also note that they’ve already had success using ketamine as an off-label treatment for severe depression. Dr. Demitri Papolos, a psychiatrist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, cautioned to NPR that esketamine “may not be as effective as a generic that any psychiatrist or physician can prescribe without restrictions.” (NPR)

• If you’ve ever wondered what our star-studded home galaxy — the Milky Way — weighs, a team of astronomers based in Germany think they have an answer. The researchers, based at the European Southern Observatory, used data from NASA and the European Space Agency to calculate the weight not only of stars in galaxy but of planets, dust, black holes (including the massive one at the heart of galaxy), visible matter, and the mysterious dark matter that helps bind the structure together. Their estimate is that the galaxy has a mass equivalent to some 1.5 trillion suns from our own solar system. “This is absolutely everything there is in the Milky Way,” according to Laura Watkins, an astronomer at the observatory, and she believes the long elusive number will help scientists better understand the galaxy and its often-mysterious ways. (The Guardian)

• And finally: The road to fully-automating self-driving vehicles is a difficult one. After an autonomous Uber car hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona last March, a new study suggests algorithms may also have a problem in how they detect people of color. The research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, analyzed how frequently object-detection models identified pedestrians from various demographic groups. Using the Fitzpatrick scale to classify skin tone from dark to light, the researchers found the algorithms to be 5 percentage points less accurate for dark-skinned individuals, even when controlling for other variables. “The main takeaway from our work is that vision systems that share common structures to the ones we tested should be looked at more closely,” Jamie Morgenstern, one of the study’s authors, told Vox. Although the researchers were unable to test detection models actually being used in self-driving cars and instead relied on those used in academia due to proprietary issues, the study still highlights an issue that warrants further investigation. (Vox)

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