Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Please Vaccinate Your Children. Sincerely, Your Friendly Neighborhood RN


Look, I get it. I am one of the yuppiest hippie wannabes I know. I buy organic produce. I meticulously inspect food labels for the presence of preservatives or synthetic texturizers. I know what buzzwords to look out for in my shampoo. I frequent the Environmental Working Group's website to be sure that my cosmetics are safe. I have DIYed my own window cleaner, makeup remover and face cream. I try to only take OTC drugs when I'm feeling really, really down and out. I am one of those people who wants a doula and a midwife by my side when it comes time to have a baby. I do my best to inspect every last thing that comes near my body in the vain hope that I can out-do the mass industrialization of nutrition and personal care. My husband has born the brunt of it; I can only imagine what a madwoman I am going to turn into when we have children. So yes, I understand where you are coming from. In any other circumstance, I would be wary of agreeing to inject myself or anyone else I knew with some mystery chemical compound simply because that's what society is telling me to do.

BUT. I am also a nurse, and so I curb my neuroses when it comes to basic public health and safety. And so I'm going to say this very, very carefully: vaccines are, without question, one of the greatest, most miraculous public health accomplishments in the history of humankind. I mean it. They are up there with sewage treatment facilities, seat belts and antibiotics. Before we routinely administered today's safe, reliable vaccines, measles killed around 400 people each year. Tetanus killed around 500. Diptheria, pertussis, polio, and rubella each independently killed thousands. Keep in mind that many of those deaths were infants and young kids. And today, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are spared these diseases, not because of better sanitation practices or better overall medical care, but because they have been immunized against them. But an increasing number of individuals - the very young, the very sick, and the very un-vaccinated - are not afforded the same protection, simply because of misinformation, mistrust and/or ignorance.

I work at a pediatrician's office, and so I deal with a small share of parents who choose, or are in the process of choosing, not to vaccinate their children. Inevitably I ask them why, and inevitably the same old misgivings come up.

Vaccines cause autism (False).

Vaccines contain mercury (Incorrect).

Vaccines contain aborted fetal material (That was a new one on me! But no, they do not).

Getting too many vaccines at once is too much for my child's immune system to handle (Also false).

That vaccine killed one of my daughters classmates (Truly, I'm very sorry for your loss - and I mean this in the most delicate of manners - but no, I am 99.99999999% certain that it did not.)

Here is what we know:

There is absolutely no causal link between a child receiving vaccinations and that same child subsequently developing autism. The initial paper that sparked this myth drew a FALSE conclusion. It has since been retracted, discredited, and otherwise discounted numerous times, and many, many follow-up studies have reinforced the fact that autism has no link to any vaccine that is currently in use. Additionally, the vilified mercury-containing preservative thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines. And as a side note, regardless of its presence or absence in vaccines, research has repeatedly shown that there no association between thimerosal (which is not the same thing as mercury) and the development of autism in children.

Also, there is no aborted fetal tissue in your child's vaccine. About 50 years ago, scientists found that they could quickly and efficiently get viruses to multiply within cells called fibroblasts. Yes, the original fibroblasts that the scientists used back in 1960 did come from two electively terminated pregnancies. Subsequent cells used for this technique were not from terminated pregnancies. Instead, they were the natural descendants of a process called cell division that happens each and every day in the bodies of all organisms. Not only that, but the cells used today to grow viruses for vaccines (which, I repeat, were not extracted from any kind of fetus) are not themselves present in the final product. So neither the original vaccines produced using those viruses, nor the vaccines that are produced using the same process today contain anything remotely resembling aborted fetal material.

With regard to the overloaded immune system argument, I feel compelled to remind parents that their children encounter more antigens in their environment every single day than they do by being exposed to any possible combination of vaccines currently in use. Additionally, a 2002 article in the journal Pediatrics did some rough math and found that, given the concentration of immune-triggering compounds present in today's vaccines, a child could safely receive 10,000 at one time. That's how powerful an infant's immune system is. That's also how weakly antigenic vaccines are. So, 3 or 4 or even 7 at once should be just fine.

I try to tell myself that these parents are doing their best, that we are all vulnerable to misinformation and passing fads, and that deciding how best to take care of your child is probably one of the most high-stakes choices that human beings have to make. As a general rule, parents are just trying to shield their kids from harm. But by making the choice not to vaccinate their children, they are doing just the opposite.

Vaccine-preventable diseases are dangerous, and in some areas they are slowly making a comeback. Measles, in particular, has been in the news almost every day lately. We have now seen 539 cases in 2014 alone. That is more cases of measles in the first six months of this year than in the last three full years combined. Keep in mind that measles was declared eradicated from the United States just 14 years ago.

These outbreaks are entirely due to well-meaning parents choosing to keep their children unimmunized. Yes, after receiving the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine, your child may develop some localized tenderness at the injection site and may even come down with a slight fever. He or she may even have some mild, temporary joint pain or feel a little foggy for a day. But these side effects are nothing compared with the effects of the disease itself. At its best, measles will cause a cough, fever, nausea, vomiting diarrhea, swollen glands, and full-body rash for about a week. The less lucky kids will end up with an ear infection, conjunctivitis, bronchitis, or a febrile seizure. A few will develop a serious pneumonia or inflammation in their liver or brain. According to the CDC, 1 out of every 1,000 children infected with measles will develop one of these complications and die. Still concerned about the side effects of immunization? 1 in 1,000,000 children who receives the MMR vaccine will have a serious allergic reaction. You do the math, and take your chances accordingly.

This is not a scare tactic. I am not being paid by any government organization or pharmaceutical company or anyone else that might stand to benefit from my endorsement of childhood immunizations (in fact, I am not being paid by anyone). The fact of the matter is that the great majority of the claims in circulation regarding the lack of safety and efficacy of vaccines are false. The statistics quoted by your local health care provider are true. The virulence of vaccine-preventable diseases is real. And as more and more people choose not to vaccinate their children out of a real but misguided fear of alleged side effects and associations, more and more children will contract these diseases, and inevitably more and more children will die. Not just those who are unimmunized, but also those of all ages who are sick and have compromised immune systems, and those who are too young to be immunized against whichever preventable disease is rearing its ugly head. So please, for the sake of your children, for their well-being as well as that of the rest of society, choose to vaccinate. Encourage your friends and family and neighbors to vaccinate. Get your boosters. And please do so before any more people have to suffer needless losses.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On the necessity of birth control in space.

The other night, John and I were browsing nerdy videos on YouTube when we happened upon one clip that discussed whether pregnancy, birth and development were possible in outer space. Given my background in astrophysics and my current pursuit of a career in OB nursing, John quickly became convinced that we had found my life's work... SPACE BABIES.

"Space Babies" Kia Sorento 2013 Super Bowl Ad

This probably isn't the start of a new and glorious career (thank you anyway, honey), but it did get me wondering about the logistics and limitations of the question. Let's say that some nice couple on the International Space Station decides that they want to have a child before their contract is up (secretly, of course, because apparently sex is expressly forbidden aboard the ISS). Would it be possible for them to conceive, and later have, a normal, healthy child?

It seems that the short answer is "no." According to research led by Joe Tash, a biologist at the University of Kansas, the high-energy radiation and so-called microgravity (10-3 G) that astronauts are subjected to during long spaceflights can have serious negative effects on their reproductive systems - namely, plummeting sperm counts and shriveling eggs. Similar concerns about the detrimental effects of space-level radiation are well-publicized. In fact, in 2010, China announced that it would require all of its female astronauts to be married with children in an effort to minimize the impact of the reproductive problems women might experience upon their return.

On the up side, a 2005 study out of the University of Texas showed that many female astronauts easily became pregnant after coming back to Earth; however, the same study also revealed a higher-than expected miscarriage rate among those pregnancies. Radiation could be to blame for these losses, but an equally plausible explanation could involve the effect of microgravity on human sex cells. Research published in 2009 in the Public Library of Science ONE showed that despite successful fertilization, many mouse embryos that were exposed to microgravity conditions stopped dividing before they reached crucial stages of development. Furthermore, Joe Tash's research also revealed severe dysfunction in the reproductive organs of female mice after about two weeks of flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery. The effect in these mice was so extensive that many of their follicular cells (the cells that produce eggs) had died and their ovaries had started to shut down.

Eek. But let's say that this daring couple is also very lucky, and they do successfully conceive a child. (We'll go ahead and skip over the logistics and precariousness of actually taking a pregnancy test in the first place.) Research suggests that while some animals, such as salamanders and fish, appear to gestate normally in microgravity environments, the outlook for mammals is decidedly more complicated. For one, some studies have suggested that microgravity can lead to fetal malformations in utero, including failure of the neural tube (the primitive brain and spinal cord) to close like it is supposed to. For another, mammals that were gestated in microgravity environments appear to have an altered vestibular response, the sense that allows a person to achieve a sense of balance and direction. Like all of our other senses, it requires stimulation to develop properly. Babies born in a microgravity environment would never learn to prefer one direction over another, leading to a compromised vestibular sense and big problems once they landed on Earth. Studies with rats have shown that a proper vestibular response can be learned over time; however, it is unclear whether that would hold true for human infants, especially if those babies spent months or even years in microgravity conditions.

And when we consider that the human body requires weight-bearing in order to stay strong, we come to another problem. Even adult astronauts have to remain vigilant about their exercise routine in order to avoid muscle atrophy and bone loss that can easily occur during long spaceflights. To a very small, rapidly developing body, these threats could be catastrophic. Additionally, the fluid shifts that commonly occur in astronauts living in microgravity environments could be far more dangerous for infants and small children, since their bodies contain more water than those of adults. Not to mention the increased risk for electrolyte abnormalities, changes in blood vessels, compromised cardiac functioning, and altered circadian rhythms that microgravity creates.

So. Overall, I think it's safe to say that conceiving, carrying, birthing, growing, or even thinking about space babies is probably not a good idea. NASA would do well to continue funding research into the effects of spaceflight on both male and female sex organs, but until we can manipulate gravity and block space-level radiation, reproduction in space just doesn't appear to be something our species is meant to experience.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Tracing Dark Matter with Ripples in the Whirlpool Galaxy

A new paper presented at this week’s American Astronomical Society conference promises to shine some light, so to speak, on the pursuit of dark matter in individual galaxies. The current model of cold dark matter in the Universe is extremely successful when it comes to mapping the mysterious substance on large scales, but not on galactic and sub-galactic scales. Earlier today, Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti of Florida Atlantic University described a new way to map dark matter by observing ripples in the hydrogen disks of large galaxies. Her work may finally allow astronomers to use their observations of ordinary matter to probe the distribution of dark matter on smaller scales.

Full story at Universe Today.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Unlocking Cosmology With Type 1a Supernovae

Let's face it, cosmologists catch a lot of flack. It's easy to see why. These are people who routinely publish papers that claim to ever more finely constrain the size of the visible Universe, the rate of its breakneck expansion, and the distance to galaxies that lie closer and closer to the edges of both time and space. Many skeptics scoff at scientists who seem to draw such grand conclusions without being able to directly measure the unbelievable cosmic distances involved. Well, it turns out cosmologists are a creative bunch. Enter our star (ha, ha): the Type 1a Supernova. These stellar fireballs are one of the main tools astronomers use in order to make such fantastic discoveries about our Universe. But how exactly do they do it?

Full story at Universe Today.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Testing the Multiverse... Observationally!

The multiverse theory is famous for its striking imagery. Just imagine our own Universe, drifting among a veritable sea of spontaneously inflating “bubble universes”, each a self-contained and causally separate pocket of higher-dimensional spacetime. It’s quite an arresting picture. However, the theory is also famous for being one of the most criticized in all of cosmology. Why? For one, the idea is remarkably difficult, if not downright impossible, to test experimentally. But now, a team of British and Canadian scientists believe they may have found a way.

Full story at Universe Today.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ancient Galaxies Fed On Gas, Not Collisions

The traditional picture of galaxy growth is not pretty. In fact, it’s a kind of cosmic cannibalism: two galaxies are caught in ominous tango, eventually melding together in a fiery collision, thus spurring on an intense but short-lived bout of star formation. Now, new research suggests that most galaxies in the early Universe increased their stellar populations in a considerably less violent way, simply by burning through their own gas over long periods of time.

Full story at Universe Today.