2019 already boasts more measles cases than all of 2010
The spike in measles cases stems from three outbreaks in Washington and New York.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 79 measles cases in 2019.
- Three outbreaks are responsible for the high number of cases, particularly an outbreak in Washington State that's affected at least 50 people so far.
- The measles vaccine is effective, though vaccine hesitancy and the virus' extremely contagious nature put some communities at risk.
Americans reported more measles cases in the first weeks of 2019 than all of 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The spike stems from three measles outbreaks (defined as three or more cases) in New York City, New York State and Washington State. The most severe outbreak emerged in an anti-vaccination "hotspot" in Clark County, Wash., where at least 50 confirmed measles cases have been reported as of February 7.
State health officials believe the outbreak started after someone with measles from outside the country traveled to the Clark County area, about 25 miles north of Portland, Oregon, and came in contact with a group of unvaccinated children.
"All those kids that were un-immunized went to public places like Ikea, Costco and a Portland Trailblazers game," said Washington State Epidemiologist Scott Lindquist.
Some weren't surprised an outbreak struck Clark County, where 8 percent of children were exempt from getting the vaccinations required to enter public school kindergarten in the 2017–2018 school year.
"This is something I've predicted for a while now," Peter J. Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told The Washington Post. "It's really awful and really tragic and totally preventable."
Demand for the measles vaccine has soared in Washington since the outbreak was reported in January, with some clinics reporting a year-over-year increase of nearly 500 percent.
"During an outbreak is when you see an influx of patients who would otherwise be vaccine-hesitant," Virginia Ramos, infection control nurse with Sea Mar Community Health Center, which runs six sites that offer vaccines in Clark County, told Kaiser Health News. "We're just happy that we're prepared and that there is vaccine available."
New York is also managing a measles outbreak that's tallied about 200 cases since the fall. The outbreak is thought to be limited to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that have been historically hesitant about vaccinations.
"Sometimes they hang up and they don't want to open the door," Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert, the health commissioner of Rockland County, northwest of New York City, where the worst of the outbreak has been, told The New York Times. "It's hard to break an outbreak if you are not getting cooperation."
Why is measles so contagious?
Measles is the most transmissible virus known to science, and that seems to be because of the unique way it invades the body, as Roberto Cattaneo, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Mayo Clinic, told Science Daily.
"The measles virus has developed a strategy of diabolic elegance," he said. "It first hijacks immune cells patrolling the lungs to get into the host. It then travels within other immune cells everywhere in the body. However, the infected immune cells deliver their cargo specifically to those cells that express the protein nectin-4, the new receptor. Remarkably, those cells are located in the trachea. Thus, the virus emerges from the host exactly where needed to facilitate contagion."
The CDC says the "measles virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace where the infected person coughed or sneezed. If other people breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface, then touch their eyes, noses, or mouths, they can become infected. Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected."
The CDC recommends two doses of measles vaccine, one given at between 12 months and 15 months of age and one between ages 4 and 6. These shots provide about 93 percent protection after one dose and 97 percent after two.
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- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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