NOTE: To skip right to the page of all the articles, click here.
I received an interesting and unexpected tweet last week: it contained a link to a blog post calling my credibility and independence as a journalist into question. To be honest, I found it amusing. If that shill check from “Big pHARMa” ever arrives as a couple folks seem to think it will, then it will certainly be nice not to feel chained to the massive debt of school loans that keeps me up nights, either working or worrying. Alas, until then, I will continue to get paid by actual journalism outlets for doing… actual journalism.
I won’t link to the post – a Google search of my name may turn it up – but the person who wrote it did me a favor. In their sad attempt to implicate me as an undercover writer for pharma companies, they compiled every single article I have written for Forbes that relates to vaccines in any way. (They seemed confused that I would write so much about vaccines for Forbes – that was part of their “evidence” that I was basically a shill – because they seemed unaware of the fact that Forbes has an entire healthcare channel of a couple dozen writers with different specialties. I was brought on specifically because of my specialty in reporting on vaccines.)
That list, complete with dates and links, was tremendously valuable. I copied and pasted it into a new page, added my other vaccine-related articles written for other publications, and Voila! I now have a page with every one of my vaccine-related journalism pieces in one place for reference. I’ve had friends ask for this before, but it’s not something I had time to pull together. The blog post by my “fan” made it possible by taking on the most time-consuming bit. And now, I’ll simply update it as I go along. So, enjoy the new feature, my Vaccine Articles Off-Site page right here.
As you’ve probably noticed if you’re a regular reader, this blog has been a bit sparse lately. I’ve had the triple whammy of travel, family illnesses and then a pile-up of work – plus the catching up after the travel and illnesses. June is not usually a big news month, but it was this year, with several huge Supreme Court decisions, the passage of California’s vaccination law (SB 277) and the death of a woman with measles. These and a half dozen new clients have kept me on my toes, so I apologize for the infrequent posts. However, the good news is that things are slowing down to warp speed, so I should be able to start posting a bit more regularly now. (I realize that simply typing it will make it no longer so!) So, bear with me because I have a number of great new posts planned, and I’ll be writing about one way in which I’ll be slightly expanding the focus of the blog (while keeping it still completely rooted in the evidence base).
In the meantime, I’m sharing a couple relevant links for work I wrote this week as well as a great video. I’m thinking each Friday here on out will be devoted to either a video or a news round-up (or both!) Since I sadly missed the opportunity to post about Shark Week on this blog, I’ll simply post two recent shark stories I wrote for Shark Week. One, with gorgeous images, features the catching and tagging of a silky shark off the coast of Florida, one of the first silkies to be tagged with a GPS satellite tag. You can even track it on Google Earth! The other, in Scientific American, describes the findings of a recent study showing that the risk of a white shark attack off the California coast has plummeted 91 percent, and risk has probably dropped throughout the rest of the world too. Sadly, that might be because we’re killing sharks at such a disastrous rate of 100 million per year.
In terms of health stories, I wrote about the risk of medical errors with the newborn naming conventions used in most hospitals for HealthDay. Then I wrote (and photographed) a piece for NPR about Essure, a non-surgical permanent form of birth control that thousands of women have complained about, though it’s not clear what adverse effects might be directly caused by the device. If you’re done with childbearing and considering a permanent form of contraception, you might want to check that story out. And then, the big news, which I may post about separately next week, is that the largest, most comprehensive safety study to date on Gardasil, the four-strain HPV vaccine, found… drumroll!… no serious side effects. There was no original research in this study. It was a review of everything published so far as well as some data not yet published. This is definitely reassuring news for those still uneasy about the HPV vaccine, the first vaccine invented specifically for the purpose of preventing cancer.
And now, the video! It’s short and as kid-friendly as they come: an opportunity to introduce your kids to the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and the importance of getting vaccinated. (You can see a longer version in which Elmo learns about germs and antibodies at The Daily Dot.) Enjoy!
There are days – many days, unfortunately – when living in the U.S. frustrates or saddens or angers me. As I see black churches burning in the midst of a debate over a racist symbol following a tragedy like the Charleston shootings, it’s hard not to become despondent. When you hear presidential hopefuls making non-science based comments (I’m not going to link because this isn’t a political blog, and I don’t need to draw attention to them all anyway), it’s disheartening. Turning on the news some days can be a recipe for depression or anxiety.
But the past week or two has been different. Just a day after the Supreme Court upheld Affordable Care Act subsidies – a ruling that ensures millions of individuals do not lose their health insurance – one of the most momentous rulings of our time came: the final wall against marriage equality fell down, and the country (and social media) erupted in a celebration of rainbows – just in time for Pride Weekends across the country. (In a less publicized but also important ruling, the Supreme Court upheld fair housing policies as well.)
As I wrote at Forbes the day of the marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision was a win for children too. The American Academy of Pediatrics has maintained for more than a decade that gay parents are just as qualified to be parents as straight ones. The AAP’s policy on same sex parents is that children fare just as well as those of different-sex parents, a reality upheld by a long and robust evidence base. What matters is that children have “secure and enduring relationships with committed and nurturing adults to enhance their life,” and sexual orientation or gender differences have no effect on that need.
Then, after a weekend of rainbow madness, Monday brought California governor Jerry Brown’s signature on Senate Bill 277, the legislation which removes all non-medical exemptions to immunization requirements for daycare and schools in California. (California’s immunization requirements do not include all the vaccines recommended on the CDC schedule. For example, rotavirus, HPV, and Hib are not required for kindergarten entry, and seventh grade entry only requires proof of Tdap and MMR.)
This law makes California the third in the U.S. (along with Mississippi and West Virginia) to offer no religious, philosophical or other personal belief exemptions to immunization requirements, and the first to roll back a prior such exemption. While it is unfortunate that a state would find it necessary to legislate that parents vaccinate their children because of the fear and misinformation surrounding the topic, the low levels of herd immunity in California which allowed the measles outbreak from Disneyland to spread so far and wide make it clear how the law will better protect children too young to be vaccinated and those individuals who are immune-compromised (as the woman who died of measles in Washington was). If nothing else, legislators recognized the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and the fact that their benefits outweigh their risks – a win for science.
So it seems there are actually things worth celebrating for today’s Fourth of July. We live in a complicated, heartbreaking, beautiful world, and our country’s diversity – so much a strength – makes it challenging to find ways we can all live together in a nation that (hopefully, eventually, one day) offers justice, equality and the best chance possible for good health to all individuals while also recognizing our differences and our need to decide for ourselves the best way to live our lives without infringing on the lives or rights of others. That’s no small ask or task. We’re stumbling our way in that direction. We have a long way to go. The past two weeks, however, we took a couple significant steps in that direction. Let’s hope we can continue to find our way forward. Happy Fourth of July!
A conversation with Anne Geddes about meningitis, vaccines and her remarkable photo series of meningitis survivors
Next week, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will decide whether to recommend the MenB vaccine, which protects against the B strain of meningococcal disease. Strains A, C, W and Y are already covered in current vaccines. Over at Forbes today, I wrote about some of the issues – mainly cost and the rarity of the disease – the CDC will consider. But I also wrote about the efforts of photographer Anne Geddes in raising awareness about meningococcal disease. Yes, THAT Anne Geddes – she of the adorable babies in flower petals and pea pods, “under the sea” and posing as acorns.
I admit I jumped at the opportunity to interview Anne Geddes. (You can watch the complete interview – and get a sense of how I interview folks – in the video below.) After all, I love photographing babies too! But there was another reason I was thrilled to interview her: we have shared a common photography subject, one of the amazing survivors she photographed for her awareness project Protecting Our Tomorrows: Protecting Against Meningoccoal Disease, which she describes here.
Jamie Schanbaum, whom I mention at the beginning of my Forbes piece, was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when she developed meningitis, which led to seven months in the hospital and loss of both legs and all her fingers. I met her while doing my graduate degree in photojournalism because I wanted to photograph her for my thesis, which, you’ll be completely unsurprised to find out, was a series of visual and written stories about families and individuals affected by vaccine-preventable diseases. One of those stories I’ve written about before on this blog, that of Nicolis Williams, who did not survive meningitis.
My photojournalistic, candid style is quite different from Anne’s gorgeously crafted portraiture, but both of us captured Jamie’s spunk, strength and intensity. She’s a hell of a survivor, having gone on to win paralympic events in cycling. You can see the images both Anne and I shot here, as well as some other survivors Anne photographed that she gave me permission to include. You can see the full series and some great behind-the-scenes images at this Tumblr.
In addition to interviewing her and Dr. Leonard Friedland from GSK (one of the pharma companies that manufactures a MenB vaccine and which supported Geddes’ photo series.), I wanted to hear what drew Anne to do the series and how she approached it. When I told her we had both photographed Jamie, she told me how her image of Jamie came to be: Read the rest of this entry »
There’s a new study out finding that breastfeeding reduces the risk of childhood leukemia. It’s a meta-analysis, which means it pools together the findings from a dozen and a half different previously published studies. I’ve gone through the details on the numbers below, but I’ve written about the more important issues tied up with this study over at Forbes. Why write about it in two places? It was far too lengthy to cover the problematic aspects of a study like this in social terms as well as the problems in the study itself. So I go over the findings and problems in the study itself here, and I discuss the implications of this study at Forbes, which I hope you’ll read.
But I will give you the spoiler summary: studies like these, especially when they do not really provide any new information (as this one does not), are most commonly used as weapons, even if not intentionally, on women who do not meet the breastfeeding recommendations. It’s yet another study telling us “breast is best” but without providing the social support and the resources that are absolutely essential to successful breastfeeding. And for those moms who cannot breastfeed – regardless of the reason – studies like this make them feel even more inadequate than their physicians, neighbors, fellow moms and the rest of society often already have, an issue Suzie Barston, author of Bottled Up and blogger at Fearless Formula Feeder, regularly addresses.
So, what about this study? It’s honestly nothing new. And as Barston points out on my Forbes post, it’s riddled with the same problems as past meta-analyses (and plenty of past breastfeeding studies in general). The study is a meta-analysis and systematic review, which means the authors, a couple of researchers from the University of Haifa School of Public Health in Israel, searched for all the studies on breastfeeding and leukemia risk that they could find across three large research databases (PubMed, the Cochrane Library and Scopus) and then analyzed the findings together. They only include case-control studies. In this study type, researchers identify a certain number of leukemia cases and then match these to controls, children with similar characteristics who did not develop leukemia. Then they compare the breastfeeding histories of all the children. For this study, the authors found 18 studies published between 1960 and 2014, involving more than 10,000 children with leukemia cases and more than 17,500 matched children without leukemia. (Three previous meta-analyses, all of which contained studies that overlapped with those in this study, found similar results as this one did.) Read the rest of this entry »
With summer nearly upon us, the bugs already are upon us in most of the U.S. My sons both came home from child care yesterday stinking of Deep Woods Off, but I knew it was better than the alternative – bite-speckled skin that would be scratched open for the next month and likely leave scars. Still, the smell was awful, so I’m exploring other effective bug spray options, and friends on Facebook directed me to the recent Consumer Reports ranking. For the most part, the article is very helpful, and I’ll be checking out some of the products they rank highly. But I was disturbed by the article’s implication that DEET was unsafe. It doesn’t outright say that, but it’s implied, and the side effects mentioned only apply to very high concentrations that the average person is very unlikely to use. So that reminded me of the post run last summer on the safety of bug spray ingredients. I’ve updated and revised that fantastic guest post by Matt Shipman. The references are at the bottom, but I’ll link to them within the text soon!
It’s estimated that no living creature on earth has caused more deaths (besides man) than the mosquito. From yellow fever to malaria to West Nile virus to dengue fever to various forms of encephalitis, mosquito mommies have left a devastating impact on humanity. Fortunately, most of these diseases are no longer threats in the U.S., but West Nile returns every summer to some degree, and dengue fever has been arriving in parts of the South. In 2012, 5,674 people contracted West Nile virus, of whom 286 died. Around 1,500 people are diagnosed with malaria every year in the U.S., though these are nearly all cases in people who have returned from traveling abroad. And it’s not just mosquitos that cause harm: More than 19,000 people have contracted Lyme disease every year since 2004. Even if children don’t catch a disease from a bug bites, they can suffer allergic reactions, and the itching can lead to scarring or skin infections, such as impetigo.
The two chemical compounds that show the greatest effectiveness in warding off mosquitos and other six- and eight-legged critters are DEET and picaridin. Neither is 100% effective (even though they’re EPA-approved), but they are pretty good at keeping blood-sucking arthropods at bay, and, consequently, they are the best (and most common) active ingredients used in U.S. mosquito and tick repellents. It’s not entirely clear how DEET, developed by the U.S. Army in the 1940s, works, but the most recent findings suggest insects sense it and then avoid it, perhaps because it confuses how they smell things – the blood-feeders don’t respond to odors that would normally trigger feeding behavior. It might also disguise human scents enough to throw bugs off the trail, but that’s less certain. The mechanism for picaridin, available since 2005 in the U.S., is even more a mystery. We just know it works.
Okay, fine, it keeps the mosquitos away – but at what cost? Well, bug repellents are not totally harmless, but they are probably less harmless than a lot of scare-mongering online would have you believe. Before we dig into the research, remember, the dose makes the poison. That means following the instructions regarding both amount and application on the insect repellent packaging, which is regulated by the EPA. The EPA has a fact sheet on proper use of DEET-containing products, such as not applying repellent on or near the hands or mouths of young children, near the eyes or mouths of anyone, or on cut, irritated, or wounded skin. It should also be washed off once you’re away from the bloodsuckers, especially if you’re using it over several days (such as on a camping trip).
But onto the safety information. Both DEET and picaridin have been approved for use on all children with no lower age restriction. Based on the available toxicological data, both chemicals have low acute toxicity, and normal use of both should not present a health concern to the general U.S. population, including children, as long as the label directions are followed. For instance, a 20% picaridin product should not be applied more than twice per day to adults or children. The effectiveness of both DEET and picaridin appears to last three to seven hours, though up to 25% DEET has been necessary to last the longer duration. Read the rest of this entry »
The first comprehensive, nationally representative study on what treatments children are receiving for ADHD was published a few weeks ago. The findings are especially important because they are based on data collected in 2009-2010, the year before the AAP published its policy statement on ADHD treatment, so we have an excellent baseline to compare against future studies. I wrote about the research at Scientific American, and I hope you’ll read that piece, so I won’t go into the details here, but here are a handful of the key findings:
- Medication alone was the most common treatment for children with ADHD in 2009-2010.
- Almost 1 in 2 preschoolers (ages 4-5) with ADHD received behavioral therapy, but 1 in 4 only received medication.
- Less than 1 in 3 children (ages 6-17) with ADHD received both medication treatment and behavioral therapy.
- 9 out of 10 children with ADHD were treated with medication and/or behavioral therapy, both of which are recommended ADHD treatments (which means 1 in 10 did not get meds or therapy).
- About 1 in 10 were taking dietary supplements for ADHD, which are not currently recommended to treat the developmental disability.
Also, as I wrote at Scientific American, it was reassuring to see that black and Latino/a children and low-income children tended to be more likely to receive behavioral therapy than white children. It’s not often that you find better access to care among minorities and lower income households, which is why I wrote the story for SciAm in the first place.
But what treatment *should* your child receive if they’ve been diagnosed with ADHD? Well, here’s a handy set of infographics to make it simple, compliments of the CDC. If you’d like to read a summary to learn more about what the CDC study found in plain language, check out the Key Findings here. You can also learn more about the specifics of your state in these measures at this interactive map on the CDC site. The state profile of Texas, for example, tells us that 75% of kids had taken meds for ADHD in the previous week when surveyed, and a third had received behavioral therapy within the past year. Read the rest of this entry »
The measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in December is officially over, the CDC reported last week. Between that announcement and this week’s European Immunization Week and National Infant Immunization Week in the U.S., it’s an opportune time to reflect on what the winter measles outbreak might mean in a broader social context in the U.S. As a high-income country with a comparatively well-developed health infrastructure and a Vaccines for Children program that ensures low-income children can get all their recommended vaccines, the biggest barriers to vaccination here are less often logistical or financial ones so much as they are psychological and ideological ones. Measles may be contagious, but, in a way, so is vaccine hesitancy. But just as containing a measles outbreak is exhausting, challenging, and complex, so is addressing the many concerns parents may have about vaccines.
The outbreak made a couple of things undeniably apparent: the small pockets of low immunization coverage that have begun to proliferate here and there throughout the U.S. – even if overall national immunization coverage rates have remained very high – really do pose a risk to the rest of the country. Although the majority of those who became sick with measles were unvaccinated, many of them had not received the vaccine because they were too young – babies who are more vulnerable to the serious complications measles can cause. Others had received the vaccine, but measles is so infectious that even a vaccine that works 95 to 98 percent of the time cannot protect everyone when an outbreak occurs.
Fortunately, no deaths occurred in the outbreak, which makes sense given the total number of cases and an estimated risk of death in 1 out of 1,000 to 2,000 measles cases (depending on how you calculate it and various factors influencing the rate). But media reports and social media postings of hospitalizations appeared sufficient to bring many parents into doctors’ offices to get their children the MMR (which was found once again this week not to increase the risk of autism spectrum disorders). It’s too soon for any studies to have scientifically assessed how the outbreak influenced parents’ attitudes or kids’ catch-up visits or families switching from not vaccinating to vaccinating, but anecdotal evidence from dozens of doctors I spoke to and in media reports implied that the outbreak hit home for a lot of parents who finally realized the threat measles can pose when immunization coverage drops in local communities.
On the other hand, the outbreak unleashed the fury of those parents who had previously comprised the silent majority: the ones who vaccinated their children according to the CDC schedule, who recognize the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and who are fed up with the increasing risks posed by parents choosing not to vaccinate. It is reasonable for a person to have the right to choose what risks they want to take on for themselves and their families with medical interventions, but how do we balance that risk against the right of others not to get ill from a disease that can cause far more damage than the vaccine that can prevent it? That was the question that raged (and still does) in headlines, op-eds, blogs, comment threads, social media, and parenting groups. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday, April 12, marked the 60th anniversary of the announcement that Jonas Salk‘s inactivated polio vaccine was “safe, effective and potent.” It’s somewhat difficult to imagine today the kind of effect that news had. I’ve written about that day and the days leading up to it – and the tragic days that followed a few weeks later with the Cutter incident – over at Forbes, which I hope you’ll check out.
In the meantime, I’ve pulled together a couple images, all in the public domain, from that time that show just how monumental the moment was.
For more images, check out the photo gallery at the Academy of Achievement website
Welcome back, Brontosaurus! An opportunity to explain the scientific process to your dinosaur-loving kids!
Remember how heartbroken you were when you found out they demoted Pluto? Well, a new investigation of paleontological evidence might just make up for it… Brontosaurus is back! A massive 300-page study in the open-access journal PeerJ has made the case that Brontosaurus should once again become its own genus, distinct from the genus Apatosaurus. Rather than summarizing the tortured history of the massive sauropod, I’ve included an infographic below with the timeline of Brontosaurus’s discovery, re-extinction, and now its return.
The short version is that in the mad rush to discover new species of dinosaurs in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was sometimes confusion about whether a specimen was new or simply another individual of a species already discovered. The first Brontosaurus, or “Thunder Lizard,” was found and named in 1879, but just a few decades later in 1903, it was determined that the two species of Brontosaurus were not different enough from the species of Apatosaurus that had been discovered, so the former were folded into the genus Apatosaurus. The genus Brontosaurus then ceased to exist since Apatosaurus had been named first. (There is much more to the story, which is worth learning if you’re going to discuss this with your children. You can read a more detailed version of the story in the study’s press release, though be warned that the press release is a little over-the-top.)
Fast forward to today: Without getting into the weeds too much, three researchers – Emanuel Tschopp, Octávio Mateus, and Roger B.J. Benson – examined all the evidence available on the bones of dinosaurs in the family Diplodocidae to find commonalities and differences in the morphology (an organism’s structure) of different specimens. To say they were thorough would be an understatement. When I sent the paper to paleontologist Dana Ehret, Curator of Paleontology for the Alabama Museum of Natural History, to confirm that it was legit, his first line in his email back to me was “This paper is a monster!” That’s a good thing – it’s just under 300 pages long. And again and again in the evidence they reviewed, the Brontosaurus emerged as its own unique genus. So then they took the traits of the bones they identified as grouping together as Brontosaurii and determined what characteristics make up the now-resurrected genus Brontosaurus. Read the rest of this entry »