New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency on Tuesday, ordering mandatory measles vaccinations for anyone living, working, or attending school in one of four zip codes in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The area, which is home to a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, has seen more than 250 cases of the highly contagious viral illness since an outbreak began last fall.
Anti-vaccine sentiment there — as with other areas across the United States and the globe — has been fueled in part by fear and misinformation. In some Jewish communities, differing interpretations over the principles of Jewish law have also contributed to low vaccination rates. One publication that targeted ultra-Orthodox parents claims that vaccines contain pig blood, rabbit brain, and aborted fetal cells, among other ingredients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some vaccines do contain pig gelatin, which is used as a stabilizer during transportation and storage. Other vaccines, including those for chickenpox, rubella, and hepatitis A are made by growing viruses in extant fetal cells originally obtained from the elective termination of two pregnancies in the 1960s. These and other cell cultures are removed following the vaccine manufacturing process, though residual amounts may remain in the final products.
Despite this, many rabbis support vaccination and state that there is no prohibition against using non-kosher ingredients in medications or inoculations. What’s more, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America “strongly urge all parents to vaccinate their healthy children on the timetable recommended by their pediatrician.”
But as was the case with an earlier move that sought to ban unvaccinated children from public spaces in Rockland County, home to another ultra-Orthodox community north of New York City, it’s unclear exactly how the mandatory vaccination order in Williamsburg will be enforced. According to Mayor de Blasio, anyone who refuses to have themselves or their children vaccinated could face a $1,000 fine. But the text of the order, issued by the city’s health commissioner Oxiris Barbot, states that community members “shall be vaccinated” unless they can demonstrate immunity or provide an adequate medical exemption.
While some people have argued that mandating vaccination violates their constitutional rights, this isn’t the first time it’s been tried. In 1991, a measles outbreak in Philadelphia that infected more than 1,400 people and killed nine led to a court order to force members of the Faith Tabernacle Church to vaccinate their children. The U.S. Supreme Court, too, has previously ruled against parents in cases where life-saving treatment has been withheld on religious grounds.
Still, some parents remain resolute in their refusal. “I will move out of New York,” one mother said, “if it will mean I can live my religious life in peace.”
Also in the news:
• On Wednesday, the world swooned over an image of a dim, blurry spot encircled in a haze of light. It was the first ever image of a black hole, captured by a global network of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope. “We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said the EHT’s director, Sheperd Doeleman, at one of seven press conferences worldwide where the image was unveiled. What the image shows is technically not the black hole itself but its silhouette. A black hole’s gravity is so great that even light can’t escape it, but powerful telescopes can pick up the glow from the gas cloud that swirls just beyond the black hole’s edge. The EHT’s image — made possible by an algorithm developed by computer scientist Katie Bouman — reveals a dense orb with the mass of 6.5 billion suns, some 55 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. Scientists say that this long-awaited snapshot is the strongest evidence yet for the existence of black holes and aligns well with the predictions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Said Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan to Science News: The image “lives up to the hype, that’s for sure.” (Science News)
• The government of Brazil’s new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro announced late last month that it has frozen 42 percent of the country’s science budget. The announcement comes at a time when Brazil’s science and communications ministry (MCTIC) is already struggling to operate with one of its lowest budgets in more than a decade. With an original expected budget of $1.45 billion for the year, the announcement leaves the ministry with a mere $752 million. While it’s unclear how the halt in funding will affect each of the ministry’s research institutions, nearly 80 percent of its infrastructure spending is frozen, which scientists fear will dramatically hamper progress on the country’s new Sirius synchrotron facility, designed to study the structure of matter. The facility represents one of the country’s largest investments in a science project, but it is only partially completed. In a joint statement issued on April 1, the Brazilian Science Academy and five other scientific societies expressed their concerns about the severe cuts in funding: “It will take many decades to rebuild the country’s science and innovation capacity.” (Nature)
• Astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year aboard the International Space Station. His identical twin Mark Kelly (though also an astronaut) stayed on Earth. In a study published in Science on Thursday, researchers explored the effects of Scott Kelly’s time in space on his physiology. Some things were expected: Kelly’s muscles atrophied, his bones thinned, and his eyeballs changed shape. Other changes, however, came as a surprise. Scientists found that Kelly’s telomeres (the protective cap of base pairs at the end of chromosomes) lengthened, but then bounced back once he returned to earth. Now he has more short telomeres than before, which could put him at higher risk for quicker aging. Also, his cognitive abilities were higher in space, and then declined once he landed. Despite all the data they collected, it’s difficult for scientists to establish causes for these changes with only one subject. Kelly’s been back for a while now, but he doesn’t feel quite the same as he used to. His time in space, he said, was disorienting. “Even after I’ve been [in space] nearly a year, you don’t feel perfectly normal,” he said in 2016 while still aboard the station. “There’s always a lingering something you feel.” (The Atlantic)
• A study purporting to allow completely paralyzed — or “locked-in” — individuals to communicate through an electronic skullcap that measures blood flow in different regions of the brain has come under fire this week. The work, originally published in PLOS Biology in 2017, claimed that the technology could correctly pick up answers from four completely paralyzed patients 70 percent of the time by detecting small changes to oxygen levels in their brains in response to yes or no questions. Earlier this week, the journal ran a critique of the study’s analysis by Martin Spüler, an informatics specialist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in Germany, who claims a success rate of 70 percent is not supported by the data. Investigations of scientific misconduct have been launched at the University of Tübingen, where the study was conducted, and at the country’s main research agency, the German Research Foundation. Lead researcher Niels Birbaumer told Science the dispute is related to statistical methods and that he is happy to comply with the investigations. (Science)
• On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved a bill to restore the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rules on net neutrality. In 2015, with support from President Obama, the FCC established a set of rules to prevent broadband internet providers from “blocking, throttling, or otherwise discriminating against lawful content” on the internet. Two years later, the Republican-controlled FCC voted to throw out those rules. The current House bill could reverse this 2017 decision, but it’s a long shot. The bill now goes to the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill will be “dead on arrival.” And according to a statement tweeted by the White House Office of Management and Budget, even if the bill passes in the Senate, President Trump’s advisers will likely recommend a veto. Despite the struggle in Congress, net neutrality is supported by most Americans. (Wired)
• And finally, if there were any science journalists not tasked with covering black holes this week (see above), they seem to have been drafted to repeat the woeful tale of a Taiwanese woman and her sweat bees. According to reports that first appeared on Chinese television late last week, and were later picked up in the Western press, the woman had recently presented herself at a local hospital complaining of eye pain. Doctors promptly discovered that four minuscule bees of the family Halictidae had taken up residence under her left eyelid, where — in a turn that cemented the story’s manifest virality — the insects were feasting on her tears. Many writers found that fact alone to be brimming with symbolism for these trying times, but stories that reached beyond the immediate facts of the case also delivered: The website Jezebel, for example, speculated (with tongues firmly lodged in cheeks) that the world’s declining bee populations might simply be taking refuge under humanity’s eyelids. WebMD, the popular (and oft-scrutinized) personal health site, saw fit to impanel a pair of ophthalmologists to weigh-in on the issue. But the award for idle enterprise surely goes to The Atlantic, which used the incident as an excuse to explore other critters that have shown an affinity for the human eye. These included all manner of beetles, ticks, mites, and worms — and, in one case, an untold number of migratory pubic lice. (Various sources)