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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First experimental Zika vaccine gets nod from FDA, moves to human trials

The US Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved the first human trial of an experimental Zika vaccine, according to a joint announcement by the two companies behind the new therapy.

The companies, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Inc., based in Pennsylvania, and GeneOne Life Science, Inc., based in South Korea, said that their DNA-based vaccine candidate, dubbed GLS-5700, will be given to 40 people in a phase I trail. The trial will start “in the next weeks,” the companies said, and could yield results later this year.

Inovio and GeneOne noted in their announcement that pre-clinical data from animal studies suggested that the vaccine could induce a strong immune response that might protect against mosquito-transmitted Zika. But, like all phase I trials, their upcoming human study will not test how effective the vaccine is at fighting off Zika virus, but rather its safety and appropriate dosage levels. If the DNA-based vaccine is found to be safe, it will then move on to larger trials on efficacy that will take years to complete.

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California sees boost in vaccination rate ahead of ban on opt-outs

As health experts continue to combat vaccine fears and myths with pamphlets and explainers, as politicians rush to install stricter rules on vaccination requirements for school children, and as fiery feuds about the life-saving medicines continue to rage online… something is working—at least in the state of California.

On Tuesday, officials there reported a 2.5 percent increase in vaccination rates of kindergarteners attending public and private schools. For the 2015-2016 school year, 92.9 percent of the state’s more than half a million ankle-biters were up to date on their shots. That’s up from 90.4 percent in 2014 and 90.2 in 2013, the state reported.

The vaccination data tracks shots that prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTAP); measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); polio; hepatitis B; and chicken pox.

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Universal flu shots may be impossible thanks to duped immune cells

Ditching annual flu shots for a single stick that can protect year after year may be even harder to do than scientists thought—thanks to our own bamboozled immune systems.

Influenza viruses are infamous masters of mutation, changing themselves ever so slightly to dodge detection by immune cells. That viral variation drives the need for us to roll up our sleeves each fall instead of relying on our immune system’s memory of last year’s flu—or so researchers thought. A new study finds that although our immune systems naturally have the potential to detect and fight all flavors of flu virus, they get tricked into fighting only strain-specific battles. The finding, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, suggests that making a universal vaccine may require wising up our immune cells as well as outsmarting the virus.

The study, from a group of researchers led by Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago, examined the immune responses of 21 people after exposures to the 2009 H1N1 virus (swine flu). Researchers specifically looked at participants’ B cells, which make antibodies that help fend off the flu by seeking out the virus and marking it for an attack, as well as seeking out the antibodies themselves.

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California governor signs bill eliminating personal vaccine exemptions

On Tuesday, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed into law one of the most stringent vaccination laws in the United States, eliminating the state’s previous personal and religious belief exemption for vaccines.

Under the new law, which takes effect January 1, 2016, all California schoolchildren must prove that they have been vaccinated in order to attend school. They can only be exempted when that child’s physician explicitly approves it.

“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” Brown wrote in a signing statement. “While it’s true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”

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