U.S. Measles Outbreak Becomes the Largest in Two Decades

In our weekly news roundup: U.S. measles cases reach a new high, cancer researchers are ousted over foreign ties, and more.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Wednesday afternoon that growing measles outbreaks have helped the United States break a troubling record. The agency now reports there are 695 cases of measles in 22 states, making 2019 the year with the greatest number of cases since the disease was declared eliminated — based on the absence of continuous measles transmission for greater than 12 months — in 2000.

Measles cases have been documented in 22 states this year. One of the most recognizable symptoms is a full-body rash.

Visual: Teseum/Flickr

The lion’s share of this year’s cases belong to three large, sustained outbreaks — one in Washington state, and two in New York that began in late 2018. This week, students were quarantined at two Los Angeles universities, while cases continue to climb in parts of New Jersey and Michigan.“The longer these outbreaks continue, the greater the chance measles will again get a sustained foothold in the United States,” the CDC statement said.

New York City officials went so far as to order mandatory vaccinations for parts of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, home to a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, which has seen more than 390 cases of measles since last fall. Low vaccination rates in this community stem in part from differing interpretations over the principles of Jewish law.

In recent months, addressing the public health consequences of anti-vaccine sentiment more broadly — spread in part through misinformation shared through websitesbooksdocumentaries, and social media — has become a topic of debate for policymakers at all levels of government.

In a statement regarding the current outbreaks, Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, called the suffering caused by the disease “avoidable,” and said the department would “undertake a comprehensive campaign to reinforce the message that vaccines are safe and effective ways to protect your children, your family, yourself, and your neighbors.”

Globally, measles deaths fell 84 percent from 2000 to 2016, according to the World Health Organization, due in large part to coordinated campaigns like the Global Vaccine Action Plan, which aims to eliminate the disease by increasing vaccination rates and improving public health measures, particularly in developing nations. In the past three years, however, the disease has had a concerning resurgence. WHO reported a 300 percent increase in the number of measles cases this year compared to the first three months of 2018.

In an opinion piece in CNN, Henrietta Fore, executive director of the U.N. Children’s Fund, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of WHO, called the situation “a global measles crisis,” driven by lack of stable health care system in some nations, and the proliferation of anti-vaccine misinformation in others.

“[T]he presence of measles can point to a pocket of unvaccinated children and a possible dysfunction in the health system,” wrote Fore and Ghebreyesus. “In short, measles is the canary in the coalmine of vaccine preventable illnesses.”

Also in the news:

• Three researchers were fired this week by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. The research center said the decisions were made after a National Institutes of Health-led investigation showed five MD Anderson faculty members had violated agency rules about describing conflicts of interest and reporting foreign income. MD Anderson officials said the center decided termination was not warranted for one of the named researchers and is still investigating the fifth. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson, said all of the researchers are “Asian.” The Houston Chronicle and Science magazine confirmed at least three are ethnically Chinese. The MD Anderson firings are the first publicly disclosed terminations of faculty since federal officials began directing the FBI, NIH, and other federal agencies to assist academic institutions in cracking down on scientists suspected of foreign espionage and intellectual property theft. The terminations have led to accusations of racial profiling by MD Anderson of researchers of Chinese or Chinese American descent. “This is part of a much larger issue the country is facing,” Pisters said to The Chronicle, “trying to balance an open collaborative environment and at the same time protect proprietary information and commercial interests.” (The Houston Chronicle, Science)

• This week, NASA announced that its InSight lander, which touched down on the Martian surface last November, has detected its first possible “marsquake” — a seismic rattling of the Red Planet’s interior. In an audio clip released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the brief temblor is just audible above the hum of the Martian wind. The underlying cause of the quake remains unknown. On Earth, seismic activity is largely the result of the shifting and crashing of tectonic plates, but there’s no conclusive evidence Mars has such plates. The Red Planet’s mild seismic activity is thought to arise as a result of planetary cooling and contraction. Scientists hope that Mars’s seismic rumbles will eventually provide clues about the makeup of the planet’s interior, though the first possible quake was too small to provide much new information. Still, it marks a welcome turn of fortunes for the InSight team: In late February, the lander’s drill, designed to burrow into the ground to measure the Mars’s subsurface temperatures, got stuck and hasn’t moved since. (The Verge)

• “First of all, who gave you permission to pump this stuff into my private property or commercial building? And second of all, why?” Such were the rhetorical questions raised this week by Andrew Whelton, a civil and environmental engineer at Purdue University, with regard to a decades-old underground pipe repair method that Whelton says presents a variety of environmental and public health hazards. Most worrisome at the moment, according to Whelton, are the fumes that escape when so-called cured-in-place pipes, or CIPP, are installed — typically as a repair to aging drainage and sewer pipes. Felt or fiberglass tubing impregnated with a resin containing a cocktail of chemicals is fed into the buried conduits, and an injection of hot water or steam hardens the resin against the interior walls of the old pipe, essentially forming a new tube. It’s cheaper and faster than laying new pipe, but the chemicals caught up in the associated steam clouds are understudied and underregulated, Whelton argues — and what is known suggests that workers and even nearby residents should not be inhaling the stuff. Cases involving groundwater contamination near CIPP installation have also been documented. The CIPP industry vigorously disputes Whelton’s findings, but the researcher remains undeterred: “Our focus has been and continues to be science,” he told Undark, “figuring out what the materials are in and released by CIPP.” (Undark)

• In 2014, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice created a mental health diversion program aimed at getting prisoners out of solitary confinement and back into the general population. By providing group and individual therapy, and helping inmates deal with stress management and impulse control, among other things, the program has reportedly graduated hundreds of men over the past five years. But some inmates, in letters to The Texas Tribune, claim that due to staffing shortages, they do not receive adequate treatment and still spend most of their days in isolation. “They don’t offer any kind of therapeutic programs,” one inmate wrote. “It seems like it’s all self help.” Inmates with mental illness are supposed to get 10 hours of unstructured time outside of their cells each week, plus 10 hours of therapy. But without independent oversight of the Texas prison system and its programs, advocates say it’s hard to know what’s actually happening to those behind bars. (The Texas Tribune)

• Around 50 lawsuits have now been filed against drug makers and distributors following the discovery that a widely used generic drug for high blood pressure was often contaminated by a suspected carcinogen. The medication — commonly referred to as valsartan — is used by millions of Americans. The contaminant, a processing byproduct called N-Nitrosodimethylamine or NDMA can also be found in smoked and cured meats. The FDA recommends a daily exposure of no more 0.096 micrograms. The agency’s tests of the drugs found levels of NDMA ranging from 0.3 micrograms to 17 micrograms (up to 177 times the safe amount, according to the plaintiff’s lawyers). The FDA acknowledges that the contamination began with a manufacturing change about four years ago but was only recently detected by the agency. Chinese companies are the main manufacturers of valsartan but this year pharmaceutical companies in India — who produce a similar drug known as losartan — announced they were also recalling the drug due to contamination. Critics say such risks to consumers have risen as the FDA has cut back on its inspections of imported pharmaceuticals and deferred to industry regarding loosened regulations. (Bloomberg)

• And finally: The theory that the Cambrian explosion was a discrete 20-million-year event during which organisms evolved many of the features — like eyes, jaws and shells — seen in today’s animals is being challenged by research published last month in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The paper suggests the Cambrian explosion may actually sit on a spectrum-like evolutionary timeline, with its organisms overlapping with those of the preceding and proceeding periods. Based on the fossil record, it seemed that the otherworldly creatures of the Ediacaran period, the time just before the explosion — shapeless lumps, and organisms resembling upright palm fronds and gliding placemats — were starkly replaced by Cambrian organisms. New fossils, however, show that certain traits associated with Cambrian organisms began appearing during the Ediacaran, suggesting a more gradual transition. “It’s very difficult to pick out a discrete Cambrian explosion,” Rachel Wood, a geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh who led the research, told Ed Yong of The Atlantic. “It’s more fruitful to think of it in terms of a very long narrative of change that started before, and continued long afterwards.” (The Atlantic)

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1 comment / Join the Discussion

    So punctuated equilibrium and saltationism have lost their single support. There was no reason to think it SHOULD be so ungradual.
    Darwinian evolution keeps making all sense and accumulating evidence.

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