China’s refusal to share virus is “scandalous… many could die needlessly”

A man in protective gear stuffs a bird into a garbage can.

US health experts are alarmed and outraged that the Chinese government appears to be withholding samples of the deadly, rapidly evolving bird flu virus, H7N9, from US research labs, according to a report by The New York Times.

The samples are critical for studying the virus and developing life-saving treatments and vaccines in preparation for potential outbreaks or pandemics. Usually, countries share viral samples “in a timely manner” without any fanfare under an agreement established by the World Health Organization to address such potential flu threats. That usually means a matter of months.

But according to the Times, China has failed to share the samples for more than a year, despite persistent requests from government officials and researchers, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, scientists and experts worry that, as the US and China continue to butt heads on trade agreements, the issue of sharing biological samples and other medical-related materials could worsen.

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Vaccine-refusing community drove outbreak that cost $395K, sickened babies

A 2013 measles outbreak rooted in a vaccine-refusing community in Brooklyn, New York cost the city’s health department an estimated $394,448, requiring 87 employees to collectively spend more than 10,000 hours on outbreak response and control, according to an analysis published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

During the outbreak, which spanned March through July, health workers quickly mobilized to track down more than 3,300 people exposed to the highly contagious, potentially life-threatening virus. Workers then determined the vaccination status of those exposed and doled out prophylactic treatments or vaccines to those who would take them. To get the word out about the health threat, workers contacted local doctors’ offices, schools, and daycares. They also placed announcements in local newspapers, set up a telephone hotline, and held community briefings on the situation.

Almost a third of the employees involved in the response were working outside of their job descriptions, diverting resources from other critical public health activities. The cost estimate combined a conservative assessment of employee compensation ($332,000) and supply costs, such as lab testing and advertising ($62,000).

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Medical board puts infamous doc on probation for toddler vaccine exemption

Dr. Robert Sears, a pediatrician infamous for promoting alternative vaccine schedules that allow parents to delay or entirely avoid the life-saving jabs, has been placed on a 35-month probation by the Medical Board of California.

The punishment stems from an accusation filed by the board in 2016 claiming Sears demonstrated gross negligence in the case of a two-year-old. The board alleged that Sears gave the young patient an exemption from all future vaccinations without reviewing any of the child’s medical records, including those that indicate which vaccines the child had received and any subsequent reactions the child suffered. Sears instead relied on an account from the child’s mother, who said the child went limp and that the child’s kidneys and intestines “shut down” after vaccinations.

The board also cited Sears for later examining the child for a head injury after the child had reportedly been “‘hit on head with hammer’ by Dad.” Sears failed to follow up with standard neurological testing, the board wrote.

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Vaccination method that wiped out smallpox gets unleashed today on Ebola

With more than 7,500 doses of an experimental vaccine against Ebola, health officials today began a vaccination campaign to try to thwart the latest outbreak of the deadly virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to the World Health Organization, the campaign will start with healthcare workers operating in areas affected by the outbreak. Then officials will focus on a “ring vaccination” strategy, which targets people who have had contact with someone with a confirmed case of Ebola, as well as people who have had contact with those contacts. (This creates rings of vaccination around each case, hence the name). These defensive social circles ensure that those most vulnerable to contracting the virus are protected while also preventing the spread of the virus from the most likely sources. The same strategy was critical during the campaign in the 1960s and ‘70s to eradicate smallpox—the only human disease that has ever been successfully wiped out.

The Ebola-vaccination campaign will take place in the DRC’s northwestern Equator Province (Province de l’Équateur), where there have been 46 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases, including 26 deaths, as of May 18. Officials have already identified 600 contacts and contacts of contacts of cases. Nearly all cases and contacts have been in the remote town of Bikoro. But officials counted four confirmed cases in Mbandaka, a provincial capital with more than a million residents. This has raised concerns about the potential for the outbreak to explode.

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Parents of children with autism may be more likely to believe vaccine myths

Kids diagnosed with autism are less likely than the general population to receive the recommended set of safe and protective vaccines—and so are their younger siblings, according to a new observational study in JAMA Pediatrics.

The finding indicates that children with autism and their siblings are at an increased risk of contracting preventable—and dangerous—infectious diseases. It also suggests that a pernicious and completely bogus notion that vaccines cause autism may be spurring hesitancy in some parents.

The authors of the study note in their conclusion:

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Morals behind anti-vaccination: Vigilance against tyrannical, impure shots

For years, doctors and health experts have tried in vain to douse the modern anti-vaccine movement with data and science. They’ve showered vaccine-hesitant parents with data on the safety and efficacy of the life-saving injections, plus information on herd immunity and the dangers of otherwise bygone diseases, such as measles. Nevertheless, the efforts largely fail. In some cases, they even backfire; mind-boggling studies have found that repeating myths and misinformation in the process of debunking them can actually reinforce them.

For a new tactic, public health researchers have turned away from facts and reason and toward morals and values. They hypothesized that if they can pitch vaccines in a way that gives anti-vaccine parents all the right feels, they may finally quench the insidious and deadly movement. And indeed, in a preliminary study, they found evidence that vaccine-averse parents have differing moral foundations than those who embrace vaccines.

In the initial study of 1,007 parents, researchers found that the most vaccine-hesitant parents were twice as likely as low-hesitancy parents to place high value on ideals of “purity” and “liberty.” Those are two of six value categories in the Moral Foundation Theory, which social psychologists developed years ago to untangle people’s moral judgments and decisions based on emotional or intuitive processes—not data and science.

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Un-bustable myths and stubborn minds: Anti-vaccine efforts backfire

Striking at a myth with facts may only shore it up, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that three main intervention strategies for combating anti-vaccine lies and falsehoods were ineffective at changing minds. But perhaps more concerning, they found that over-time exposure to the interventions strengthened participants’ belief in those lies and falsehoods, researchers recently reported in PLOS One. The researchers speculate that the mere repetition of a myth during the process of debunking may be enough to entrench the myth in a believer’s mind.

“People tend to mistake repetition for truth, a phenomenon known as the ‘illusory truth’ effect,” the authors, led by Sara Pluviano at the University of Edinburgh, note. And when those myths are built into a framework of beliefs and world views—a cognitive consistency perspective—it becomes even harder to knock them out.

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Custom cancer vaccines safely fight and kill tumors in early human trials

With swift shots to the arm, doctors safely and effectively prime our immune systems to fight off deadly infectious diseases. Now, with tightly crossed fingers, they plan to do the same for cancers.

In two early clinical trials involving 19 patients with skin cancer, personalized vaccines appeared safe and effective at spurring immune responses to attack and destroy tumors. The vaccines worked by coaching killer immune cells—T cells—to destroy tumors by seeking out uniquely mutated proteins on each patient’s one-of-a-kind cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

The results of the two trials, both published this week in Nature, follow years of basic research and animal studies on this strategy. Researchers are optimistic, but there are big hurdles ahead of these small trials, including bigger trials with more patients and controls. If those go well, researchers will likely have to figure out how to streamline creating vaccines for individual patients, which is currently tedious and expensive.

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