TIME vaccines

How to Change an Anti-Vaxxer’s Mind

TIME.com stock photos Health Syringe Needle
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

It's not easy, but a new study suggests one way to help persuade parents to vaccinate their children

Let’s take a moment and praise anti-vaccine parents. Really. They’re wrong on the science, wrong on the politics, and deeply, morally wrong to deny their own children a simple disease preventive that they themselves likely enjoyed growing up. But like all parents everywhere, they’re acting on a simple, powerful impulse: to keep their children healthy.

That’s a very noble goal, but it’s also one of the things that makes it so bloody hard to change their minds on the topic of vaccines. Public service campaigns don’t work; nor do one-on-one explanations of why the rumors about a vaccine-autism link are wrong. In some cases, there is even a backfire effect: the greater the effort expended to persuade the anti-vaxxers, the more convinced they become that they’re right.

So it’s extremely good news that researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign may at last have come up with a way to cut through the misinformation and get the truth across: Don’t just tell parents to vaccinate their children, show them what happens if they don’t.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by graduate student Zachary Horne recruited a sample group of 315 people—both parents and non-parents—and first conducted a simple survey designed to measure their pre-existing attitudes to vaccines. The subjects were asked to respond on a six-point scale, from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” to five statements that included, “The risks of side effects outweighs any potential benefits of vaccines” and “I plan to vaccinate my children.”

All of the subjects were then divided into three groups: One group was given material to read about the latest research showing that autism and vaccines are in no way related. The second group was given a paragraph to read written in the voice of a mother describing what it was like when her child contracted measles; three pictures of children with measles, mumps and rubella; and written warnings about the importance of vaccinating children. The third group, serving as a control, read material on an unrelated science topic.

When the three groups’ attitudes to vaccines were tested again, the results were striking. Both the control and the so-called “autism correction” group showed a slight uptick in their approval of vaccines, but in neither case were the numbers terribly significant. The group that had learned about the wages of vaccine denialism changed markedly, however, with increased approval rates five times larger than those in the autism correction group and six times larger than in the control group.

“Rather than attempting to dispel myths about the dangers of vaccinations,” the researchers wrote, “we recommend that the very real dangers posed by serious diseases like measles, mumps and rubella be emphasized.”

As TIME reported in the Oct. 6, 2014 issue, this is precisely the approach that worked during the mumps outbreak in Columbus, Ohio last year. College students were nonchalant about getting vaccinated, but when they learned that the disease can lead to sterility in both men and women, they were a lot more inclined to step up for their shots. “I was pretty freaked out,” one Ohio State University student said. “I didn’t know mumps could lead to any of that.”

The power of the show-don’t-tell approach is nothing new. It’s the reason behind the anti-tobacco shock ads showing people dying of lung cancer, as well as the surgery fund-raising ads showing photos of babies with cleft lips. The trick in all of these cases is getting people to act fast. If too much time elapses between image and potential action, the power of the message is lost.

For that reason, Horne and his co-authors suggest that future research should look at the effectiveness of including the kind of counseling that was used in their study during routine well-baby visits, when vaccinating the child on the spot is an option. After all, the effect of scaring a parent straight may be temporary, but the damage done to a child who contracts a vaccine-preventable disease can be for life.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME the brain

Why Your Brain Thinks This Picture Shows a Giant, Martian Crab Monster

nasa crab monster mars
NASA Is this a terrifying crab monster or just a pile of rocks?

Blame 'pareidolia' - a phenomenon that makes us see all kinds of things

Think you’re savvy in the ways of social media? OK, which of the following two headlines would be likelier to get your attention?

a) Mars Rover Team Studies Geological Zone With High Silica Content

b) Mysterious Crab Monster Found on Mars!

If you said a), you can probably forget about that job application you sent to Facebook. It’s the crab monster news that, of course, has set social media on fire in the past day, with a real-life, wholly gross image sent back by the Mars Curiosity rover that — when seen up close — does appear to show some sort of giant crab lurking in a cave.

But here’s the less clickable part of that news: It’s definitely not a giant crab lurking in a cave. In fact, it’s just one more example of the sometimes whimsical, always spooky phenomenon known as pareidolia, or the tendency of the brain to see familiar shapes—especially faces—emerging from random patterns.

Pareidolia is what’s behind J.C. Penney’s disastrously ill-designed Adolf Hitler teapot, which was not the marketing name the Penney folks assigned to it, but is the only way the unfortunate product will ever be known thanks to the mustache, bangs and upthrust arm it calls to mind. It’s also the reason we see faces in the random patterns of marble tiles or burned toast, or in the more orderly design of a handbag with two side-by-side loops where the handle is attached and a horizontal zipper below, forming a mouth and a pair of eyes.

The pareidolia phenomenon is actually a deeply rooted one, something that helps infants focus on faces early and also allowed humans in the wild to spot danger easily—picking a potentially menacing human or animal peering out from a backdrop of leaves or scrub. Yes, more often than not it’s a false alarm, but better to overreact fifty times than under-react even once.

A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint the spot in the brain in which pareidolia plays out, and determined that it’s actually in two spots called the left and right fusiform gyrus. It is the left that reacts first to a possible face in a background patten, sending out a What’s this? signal to the right. The right then makes the call—Is this really a face?—and for safety’s sake, it tends to err on the side of yes. The left then uses those few processing microseconds to consider the context of the image, and often as not will sound the all-clear. The right, however, is sometimes not persuaded, and continues to process the image as a face—helping us avoid danger, perhaps, but scaring us more than we need to be too.

This is not the first time something suspicious on Mars got Earthlings worked up. In 1976, the Viking 1 orbiter discovered what for all the world appeared to be a face staring up from the Martian terrain. Even in that pre-Internet era, the image went the 1970s equivalent of viral, and later figured significantly in the 2000 Brian de Palma movie, Mission to Mars. By then, however, the face had already been unmasked, with a subsequent flyover by the Mars Global Surveyor in 1998 showing it merely to be the natural landform it was—and one that had significantly eroded away at that. A subsequent image from 2001 showed even more natural erasure of the original shape.

In fairness to the folks freaked out by the current image, a crab is not a face and the brain has to work a little harder to force that image out of the background shapes, but it does the job all the same—just as it will interpret a branch in the underbrush as a snake or a shadow in the closet as a monster. Your pattern recognition regions are not the smartest part of your brain, but they’re not designed to be. They only have to be right once, and on the offchance you ever do run across a bear in the woods or a crab monster on Mars, you’ll have your fusiform gyri to thank for keeping you alive.

TIME space

Precursors of Life Found on a Comet

Anyone home? Philae's landing site on Comet P67
ESA Anyone home? Philae's landing site on Comet P67

The Philae lander offers new clues to cosmic biology

The universe is the greatest organic chemistry experiment that’s ever been run. There isn’t a hydrocarbon anywhere that wasn’t born in the Big Bang, cooked up in the stars and blasted back into space where it combined and recombined into the stuff of biology. Living things—as far as we know—may exist only on Earth, but the complex, biotic, raw materials are everywhere. Now, a new paper in Science reports findings from the Philae spacecraft—which bounced down on Comet P67 on Nov. 12—adding a new dimension to that growing body of knowledge.

Comets have always been a good place to go looking for the origins of life in the universe. They are considered the most pristine artifacts of the early solar system—condensing out of the cosmic cloud that formed the sun and the planets, but remaining in the deep freeze of deep space for most of their very long lives, meaning that their chemistry has not changed much over time.

Ground-based telescopes have detected more than 20 species of organic molecules in the coronae—or glowing heads—of comets. Samples of meteorites that have landed on Earth have also shown them to have organic compounds including amino acids. But meteorites are agglomerations of rock that have been altered many times over the eons—not to mention that have been superheated during their plunge through Earth’s atmosphere—meaning that their molecular cargo has been altered and perhaps even contaminated by earth’s biology. Comets have been largely untouched.

The Science paper—one of several from Philae’s various research teams released this week—reports findings from the Cometary Sampling and Composition (COSAC) instrument, which was designed both to sniff the immediate environment of the comet for ambient organics and to drill into the surface to collect and analyze samples. The first half of the experiment went well, but the second half almost came to ruin.

Multiple sniff readings were taken as Philae flew by and approached the comet. According to the plan, once the lander touched down on the comet, an upward-pointing rocket exhaust was supposed to ignite, pressing Philae down onto the surface, and a pair of downward pointing harpoons were supposed to fire, anchoring it in place. Neither system worked.

Instead, Philae landed, bounced, and settled back down in an untargeted area with too little sunlight to keep its solar power system running consistently, making the drilling impossible. Fortuitously, however, the impact did cause small clumps of surface material to be drawn into Philae’s pair of .8 in. (2 cm) sample-intake pipes. The temperature inside the pipes was 54° to 59° F (12° to 15° C)—which was plenty warm enough to allow COSAC to do its work.

The instrument detected 16 separate organic compounds of various complexity and with various possible biological uses—four of which had never been seen in a comet before. In earthly organisms, those same molecules play roles in the formation of sugars, amino acids, peptides and nucleotides. Given the right opportunity, they could do the same elsewhere in the cosmos. “The complexity of cometary nucleus chemistry,” the authors of the paper wrote, “impl[ies] that early solar system chemistry fosters the formation of prebiotic material in noticeable concentrations.”

The mission planners hope for more from Philae in the coming months—but whether the little lander can deliver is another matter. The shadowy region in which Philae landed has not brightened up in any lasting way, though a passing slash of sunlight did allow it to stir to life briefly in June. In mid-August, however, P67 will arrive at its closest approach to the sun, and the shadows will surely lift, at least temporarily. If Philae opens its eyes again, it will do so at a very scientifically opportune moment because it is during a comet’s brush with the solar fires that it lights up and becomes most chemically active.

But even if Philae speaks no more, it will have already done its job. It made an improbable journey, landed in an improbable place and has sent home at least some of the scientific knowledge it was built to collect. No matter what it does next, it is destined to remain not just a visitor to a comet, but a permanent part of it.

TIME medicine

Meet the Heroes and Villains of Vaccine History

A California legislator who faces a recall campaign for his support of a law mandating vaccinations is just one of the heroes in the history of vaccines. Alas, there are villains too

  • Edward Jenner

    Edward Jenner Vaccines
    Popperfoto/Getty Images Edward Jenner

    No one knows the name of the dairy maid 13-year old Edward Jenner overheard speaking in Sodbury, England in 1762, but everyone knows what she said: “I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.” Jenner was already a student of medicine at the time, apprenticed to a country surgeon, and the remark stayed with him. But it was not until 34 years later, in 1796, that he first tried to act on the dairy maid’s wisdom, vaccinating an 8-year-old boy with a small sample from another dairy maid’s cowpox lesion, and two months later exposing the same boy to smallpox. The experiment was unethical by almost any standard—except perhaps the standards of its time—but it worked. Jenner became the creator of the world’s first vaccine, and 184 years later, in 1980, smallpox became the first—and so far only—disease to have been vaccinated out of existence.

  • Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin

    Albert Sabin Jonas Salk Vaccines
    Mondadori/Getty Images; PhotoQuest/Getty Images Left: Albert Sabin in his laboratory in 1960; Right: Jonas Salk

    Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin didn’t much care for each other. The older, arid Sabin and the younger, eager Salk would never have been good matches no matter what, but their differences in temperament were nothing compared to a disagreement they had over science. Both researchers were part of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis—later dubbed the March of Dimes—and both were trying to develop a polio vaccine. Sabin was convinced that only a live, weakened virus could do the trick; Salk was convinced a newer approach—using the remains of a killed virus—would be better and safer. Both men turned out to be right. Salk’s vaccine was proven successful in 1955; Sabin’s—which was easier to administer, especially in the developing world, but can cause the rare case of vaccine-induced polio due to viral mutations—followed in 1962. Both vaccines have pushed polio to the brink of eradication. It is now endemic in only three countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria—and appears, at last, destined to follow smallpox over the extinction cliff.

  • Dr. Maurice Hilleman

    Dr. Maurice Hilleman Vaccines
    Ed Clark—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image Dr. Maurice Hilleman (center) talks with his research team as they study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Springs, Md. in 1957.

    Around the world, untold numbers of children owe their health to a single girl who woke up sick with mumps in the early morning hours of March 21, 1963. The girl was Jeryl Lynne Hilleman, who was then only 5; her father was a Merck pharmaceuticals scientist with an enduring interest in vaccines. Dr. Maurice Hilleman did what he could to comfort his daughter, knowing the disease would run its course; but he also bristled at the fact that a virus could have its way with his child. So he collected a saliva sample from the back of her throat, stored it in his office, and used it to begin his work on a mumps vaccine. He succeeded at that—and a whole lot more. Over the course of the next 15 years, Hilleman worked not only on protecting children against mumps, but also on refining existing measles and rubella vaccines and combining them into the three-in-one MMR shot that now routinely immunizes children against a trio of illnesses in one go. In the 21st century alone, the MMR has been administered to 1 billion children worldwide—not a bad outcome from a single case of a sickly girl.

  • Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering

    Pearl Kendrick Vaccines
    University of Michigan School of Public Health Pearl Kendrick

    It was not easy to be a woman in the sciences in the 1930s, something that Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering knew well. Specialists in public health—one of the only scientific fields open to women at the time—they were employed by the Michigan Department of Health, working on the routine business of sampling milk and water supplies for safety. But in their free time they worried about pertussis—or whooping cough. The disease was, at the time, killing 6,000 children per year and sickening many, many more. The poor were the most susceptible—and in 1932, the third year of the Great Depression, there were plenty of poor people to go around. A pertussis vaccine did exist, but it was not a terribly effective one. Kendrick and Eldering set out to develop a better one, collecting pertussis samples from patients on “cough plates,” and researching how to incorporate the virus into a vaccine that would provide more robust immunity. They tested their vaccine first on mice, then on themselves and finally, in 1934, on 734 children. Of those, only four contracted whooping cough that year. Of the 880 unvaccinated children in a control group, 45 got sick. Within 15 years of the development of Kendrick and Eldering’s vaccine, the pertussis rate in the U.S. dropped by 75%. By 1960 it was 95%—and has continued to fall.

  • Dr. Richard Pan

    Sacramento California News - June 30, 2015
    Madeline Lear—Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Wire June 30, 2015 - Sacramento, California - Senator Richard Pan (right) speaks during a press conference at William Land Park Elementary School in Sacramento on June 30, 2015, where vaccination advocates thanked the legislature and Gov. Brown for passing Senate Bill 277, which eliminates personal and religious belief exemptions for vaccines.

    The work that’s done at the lab bench is not the only thing that makes vaccines possible; the work that’s done by policymakers matters a lot too. That is especially true in the case of California State Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician by training who represents Sacramento and the surrounding communities. Pan was the lead sponsor of the recently enacted Senate Bill 277, designed to raise California’s falling vaccine rate by eliminating the religious and personal belief exemptions that many parents use to sidestep the responsibility for vaccinating their children. For Pan’s troubles, he now faces a possible recall election, with anti-vaccine activists trying to collect a needed 35,926 signatures by Dec. 31 to put the matter before the district’s voters. Pan is taking the danger of losing his Senate seat with equanimity—and counting on the people who elected him in the first place to keep him on the job. “I ran to be sure we keep our communities safe and healthy,” he told the Sacramento Bee. That is, at once, both a very simple and very ambitious goal, made all the harder by parents who ought to know better.

  • Dr. Andrew Wakefield

    Dr. Andrew Wakefield Vaccines Autism
    Shaun Curry—AFP/Getty Images From right: Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his wife, Carmel arrive at the General Medical Council (GMC) in central London on Jan.28, 2010.

    Not every conspiracy theory has a bad guy. No one knows the name of the founding kooks who got the rumor started that the moon landings were faked or President Obama was born on a distant planet. But when it comes to the know-nothing tales that vaccines are dangerous, there’s one big bad guy—Andrew Wakefield, the U.K. doctor who in 1998 published a fraudulent study in The Lancet alleging that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The reaction from frightened parents was predictable, and vaccination rates began to fall, even as scientific authorities insisted that Wakefield was just plain wrong. In 2010, the Lancet retracted the study and Wakefield was stripped of his privilege to practice medicine in the U.K. But the damage was done and the rumors go on—and Wakefield, alas, remains unapologetic.

  • Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey

    Jenny McCarthy Jim Carrey Vaccines Autism
    Brendan Hoffman—Getty Images Jim Carrey (center) carries Evan McCarthy, son of actress Jenny McCarthy (left) during a march calling for healthier vaccines on June 4, 2008 in Washington.

    If you’re looking for solid medical advice, you probably want to avoid getting it from a former Playboy model and talk show host, and a man who, in 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, introduced the world to the comic stylings of his talking buttocks. But all the same, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey are best known these days as the anti-vaccine community’s most high-profile scaremongers, doing even the disgraced Andrew Wakefield one better by alleging that vaccines cause a whole range of other ills beyond just autism. None of this is true, all of it is shameful, and unlike Wakefield, who was stripped of his medical privileges, Carry and McCarthy can’t have their megaphones revoked.

  • Rob Schneider

    Rob Schneider Vaccines
    Richard Shotwell—Invision/AP Rob Schneider in 2014.

    What’s that you say? Need one more expert beyond Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey to weigh in on vaccines? How about Rob Schneider, the Saturday Night Live alum and star of the Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo films? Schneider has claimed that the effectiveness of vaccines has “not been proven,” that “We’re having more and more autism” as a result of vaccinations, and that mandating vaccines for kids attending public schools is “against the Nuremberg laws.” So, um, that’s all wrong. A vocal opponent of the new California law eliminating the religious and personal belief exemptions that allowed parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids, Schneider called the office of state legislator Lorena Gonzalez and left what Gonzalez described as a “disturbing message” with her staff, threatening to raise money against her in the coming election because of her support of the law. Gonzalez called him back and conceded that he was much more polite in person. Still, she wrote on her Facebook page, “that is 20 mins of my life I’ll never get back arguing that vaccines don’t cause autism with Deuce Bigalow, male gigolo.#vaccinateyourkids.”

  • Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

    Robert Kennedy, Jr. Vaccines
    Rich Pedroncelli—AP Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks against a measure requiring California schoolchildren to get vaccinated during a rally at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on April 8, 2015.

    If you’re looking for proof that smarts can skip a generation, look no further that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the late Bobby Kennedy. RFK Jr. has made something of a cottage industry out of warning people of the imagined dangers of thimerosal in vaccines. An organomercury compound, thimerosal is used as a preservative, and has been removed from all but the flu vaccine—principally because of the entirely untrue rumors that it causes brain damage. But facts haven’t silenced Kennedy who, as a child of the 1950s and ‘60s, surely got all of the vaccines his family doctor recommended. Children of parents who listen to what he has to say now will not be so fortunate.

TIME vaccines

Seattle Flunks Vaccine Science

Northwest nonsense: Vaccine rates in Seattle are dangerously low
Edmund Lowe Photography; Getty Images/Moment RF Northwest nonsense: Vaccine rates in Seattle are dangerously low

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In the same week Nigeria frees itself from polio, vaccine rates continue to fall in the Pacific northwest

Nothing says First World city like Seattle does. Come for the cachet, stay for the Seahawks, and give a nod to the Starbucks and the Amazon and the mothership that is Microsoft just to the east. There’s nothing this so-hip-it-hurts town lacks, it seems—except perhaps for common sense. If you’re looking for that, the developing world is a far better bet.

That’s the inescapable conclusion on what should be a very good week for public health—and childhood health in particular—with the World Health Organization and other groups announcing on July 24 that Nigeria has gone a full year without a single reported case of polio. Pending further certification, the country will be removed from the dwindling list of countries in which the disease is endemic, leaving just Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Nigeria’s caseload remains at zero for two more years, it will be officially declared polio free.

How did the country that as recently as 1988 saw 30,000 children—a stadium’s worth—paralyzed or killed by polio every year achieve such a stunning turnaround? No surprise: vaccines—the same vaccines that have saved the lives and health of millions of children around the world, and the same vaccines that saw polio eradicated entirely in the U.S. in 1979.

So it came as a head-slapping development that earlier this month, Seattle news outlets reported that polio vaccination rates in their city have hit a low of just 81.4%, or worse than the rates in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen, according to the WHO. Why? Because Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen may have a lot of problems, but they don’t have the anti-vaccine crazies.

Vaccine denialism is a perverse affliction of people who should be smarter than they act—the well-educated, high-income folks who know just enough to know too much, and to assume that simply because they haven’t seen a disease in a long time it’s gone away. And hey, if it does turn up, they’ve surely got the resources to deal with it.

That’s the reason that in the U.S., anti-vaxxers tend to cluster in wealthy, blue-state communities like Silicon Valley, New York City, Columbus, Seattle and it’s down-coast little sister Portland. It’s the reason too that the nonsense that animates the anti-vaxxers—the idea that vaccines are toxic or overprescribed or nothing more than a cash grab by big pharma and big government—is a lot likelier to gain traction in other wealthy countries around the world than in ones that have only recently done away with scourges like polio or are still struggling with them, and either way have images of sick or dying children still fresh in their minds.

“Polio is nonexistent in the states, so if you’re going to travel, it makes sense to do it,” said one Washington State resident interviewed by Seattle’s KUOW radio station on July 14. “We are doing vaccines based on our family’s needs, not based on what doctors say we need to follow.”

Never mind how abjectly ridiculous that thinking sounds if you shift its frame even a little: “We are fire-proofing our home based on our family’s needs, not based on what the fire department say we need to follow,” or “We are fastening our seat belts during turbulence based on our family’s needs, not based on what flight attendants say we need to follow.”

Never mind, too, that that the very reason polio is non-existent in the states is because people have been good about getting vaccinated and that, as an outbreak in an unvaccinated Amish community in 2003 showed, there is no virus in the world that isn’t just an incoming airline flight away. If it lands in a community where vaccine rates are low, it will find plenty of people to infect.

What’s more, while polio may indeed have been KO’ed in the states years ago, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and more are all very much still at large, and outbreaks of those diseases have been on the rise thanks to the anti-vaxxers. The vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella specifically is below 90% among Seattle kindergarteners, dangerously short of the 95% rate needed to keep communities as a whole protected.

For most people, living in the developed world is a mere accident of birth and geography—a demographic freebie that gets you started in life far ahead of people born in less lucky places. Privilege can be part of that first world birthright, as can wealth and freedom and the opportunity for good heath. But smarts, it seems, have to be earned. That, clearly, is something Nigeria and Rwanda could teach Seattle.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME vaccines

This Is How Nigeria Beat Polio

Goodbye to all that: Computer-generated model of a poliovirus
Calysta Images ;Getty Images/Tetra images RF Goodbye to all that: Computer-generated model of a poliovirus

A quarter-century campaign brings the world tantalizingly close to eradicating a disease

It’s easy not to notice a negative. A house burns down on your block and it’s all you can talk about. But a house doesn’t burn down? Where’s the news?

Still, absence can be the stuff of headlines, and that fact has rarely been truer than it is in Nigeria today—where health officials are celebrating a full year without a single case of polio. A polio-free Nigeria means a polio-free Africa, since it was the only country left of the 47 on the continent where the crippling disease was still endemic. The virus, which as recently as 1988 was endemic in 128 countries, crippling 350,000 children per year, has now been cornered in just two places—Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s barely hanging on there. Wipe polio out in those last two redoubts and it will become only the second disease in history—after smallpox—to have been vaccinated out of existence.

“We are celebrating the first time ever that Nigeria has gone without a case of polio, but with caution,” said Dr. Tunji Funsho, who leads Rotary International’s anti-polio campaign in Nigeria. “Surveillance takes place in every nook and cranny of this country, even in those areas that have been free for years.”

The victory in Nigeria did not come easy—and it almost didn’t happen at all. For more than a generation, it has been Rotary that has led the drive to eradicate polio, administering vaccinations to 2.5 billion children in 122 countries at a cost of $1.4 billion. With the help of UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other groups, the effort paid off comparatively fast. As long ago as 2003, the virus had been chased out of all but six countries and the global caseload was down to just 732. There was talk of eradication by as early as 2005.

But Nigeria scuttled those plans. In the summer of 2003, Muslim clerics in the country’s northern regions halted all vaccinations, spreading the fiction that the vaccines contained HIV and were designed to sterilize Muslim girls. Quickly, the poliovirus did what all viruses do when they’re given that kind of running room: it spread, and fast. By 2005, cases consistent with the Nigeria strain were appearing in a 16-nation band that stretched as far away as Indonesia, before the outbreak could finally be contained.

“This is a disease that can’t be controlled,” said WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer at the time, “it has to be eradicated.”

While the current victory in Nigeria was a huge milestone, things remained dicey right to the end—again due to politics—when Boko Haram fighters killed nine polio workers and abducted three others earlier this year. But the vaccine program was already too far along for the attacks to reverse things, and as the July 24 anniversary arrived, victory was at last declared—albeit tentatively.

Nigeria is now officially off the list of endemic countries, but the poliovirus can lurk in sewage and elsewhere, and since there can be up to 200 asymptomatic cases of the disease for every paralytic one, there is no telling how many human virus reservoirs are still at large. Only after two more polio-free years pass will Nigeria be declared officially done with the disease.

That leaves Afghanistan and, most troublingly, Pakistan. Currently, there have been only 33 cases of polio recorded worldwide in 2015—28 in Pakistan and 5 in Afghanistan. At the same point last year, those two countries had already had 107 infections, and the Pakistani strain had turned up in at least six other countries.

Progress has been slowed in Pakistan by often-deadly attacks on polio field workers carried out by local Taliban fighters. Since 2012, however, the government has been providing help, committing its military to protecting the vaccinators and recruiting religious leaders to speak out on the moral imperative of ensuring the health of children.

National pride plays no small role too. India—Pakistan’s mortal rival—has not had a case of polio since 2011 and was declared officially free of the disease last year. That the Indians accomplished this in a country with four times the landmass and seven times the population of Pakistan has been galling to many Pakistanis. The dramatic reduction in new infections in Pakistan from 2014 to 2015 has been a point of national pride.

Protecting children should not, of course, be a matter of international bragging rights. It should just be something human beings do. We’re a species smart enough to have invented a vaccine and brave enough to go delivering it in very dangerous places. The effort to eradicate polio has been a halting thing, and we have too often gotten in our own way. But at last, sometimes despite ourselves, we appear to be on the brink of winning.

TIME space

The Pluto Encounter Means More Than You Think

Yes, the mission is about the science, but it's also about humanity's—and America's—ability to do things right

This week at least, let’s call Pluto a planet. You’d better get used to it, because given the kind of love the little world is getting, it’s an honorific that might be sticking around.

Pluto was always a cosmic screwball, a ball of rock and ice smaller than our moon that tumbled out of the Kuiper Belt, fell in with a group of eight legitimate planets well above its station, and hung around along enough that it became, de facto, one of the gang. That was never a sure thing. While the planets from close-in Mercury to distant Neptune orbit in the flat, more or less around the sun’s equator, Pluto dive bombs the solar system at an inclination of 17 degrees, plunging below and above the equatorial plane. Its orbit is an ellipse, with a maximum distance of 4.59 billion miles (7.38 billion km) from the sun and a minimum of 2.76 billion miles (4.44 billion km), while the other planets orbit in more or less a circle.

Until 2006, Pluto was called a planet, before sticklers at the International Astronomical Union, who decide such things, busted it down to a dwarf planet, for a whole lot of reasons that made perfect sense astronomically but none at all sentimentally. But never mind now, because Pluto, the runt of the solar system litter, is currently everybody’s favorite.

The reason, of course, is the New Horizons probe, which after a nine-year, 3 billion-mile (4.8 billion km) journey, just passed within 7,750 miles (12,472 km) of Pluto’s frozen surface, snapping pictures and taking readings all the way. The images and the data took 4.5 hours to reach Earth even moving at light speed, and most of the time the ship has been in space it has simply been storing what it’s learned in on-board computers. The data dump that finally began when the probe passes Pluto will take up to 16 months to complete.

But the pictures come first and the best that have been returned so far showed a brown and tan world with a range of curious features, including four Missouri-sized dark spots along its equator. In the southern hemisphere is a vast, pale region shaped exactly like, yes, a heart, because while science doesn’t always go all serendipitous on you, when it does, it makes the most of the moment.

In some ways, however, the bigger deal is that New Horizons is where it is at all. The probe, which is one of the smallest ever built—about the size of a grand piano—and easily the fastest, at 31,000 mph (49,900 k/h), arrived at its closest approach to Pluto just one minute later than was forecast by the trajectory planners when it was launched. And it nicely hit the 36 by 57 mile (60 by 90 km) window it was aiming for—the equivalent of a commercial airliner landing within a tennis ball’s width of its target, as NASA likes to boast.

Today especially, boasting is something NASA is entitled to do. New Horizons completes a half-century reconnaissance of all nine planets in our solar system, with some—Uranus and Neptune—getting just one visit each, while others got many. Mars is currently so well-populated by probes that it has something close to a mini-infrastructure. And not to put too fine or jingoistic a point on it, but the overwhelming majority of spacecraft ranging anywhere in the solar system carry the NASA decal and the American flag.

That matters. It will be a while—many generations—before human beings truly become a multi-planet species. And the world we’re likeliest to stake our first claim to, Mars, is a forbidding place that at best will serve as a cosmic equivalent of the McMurdo Station in Antarctica—a research base that is far more a work station than a home.

But humanity—led by the U.S.—has made a start, sending our buoys throughout the solar system where they bob and drift and teach us things we never could have known if we didn’t have the smarts and the will to spend the money and build the machines. The points the species puts on the board when one of these improbable ships gets where it’s supposed to go and does what it’s supposed to do are the hardest-won of all. Our opponent in these cases isn’t another nation-state with which we’re competing for land or influence or wealth, it’s the laws of physics themselves.

Difficult as our terrestrial challenges seem, they are all parts of a system we created. There was no such thing as the laws of economics until we emerged from the swamp and created them. Ditto the laws of politics. We are always free to change the rules—and we often do.

The laws of nature have always been here and beating them—climbing out of the gravity well of Earth, keeping a machine like New Horizons powered in the deep freeze and deep black of space—is not the kind of thing that can be settled over a negotiating table in Vienna or Geneva. Physics won’t compromise; it won’t relent on one of its points if you relent on one of yours. Playing its game by its rules is the only way to win.

It is both good for the world and a bit sad for science that on the very morning New Horizons made its rendezvous with Pluto, the biggest headlines are going to the much-awaited international nuclear deal with Iran. Peace is undeniably a good thing, but it’s something we can make happen any old time if we simply choose to. Interplanetary travel is something else.

Surely, it is just coincidence that among the many Tweets sent out by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the nuclear deal is one that reads, “#IranDeal shows constructive engagement works. With this unnecessary crisis resolved, new horizons emerge with a focus on shared challenges.”

Rouhani’s new horizons, of course, is very different from NASA’s New Horizons. Both are historic; both are extraordinary news. But with due applause for the peacemakers, today belongs to the explorers.

Read next: NASA Just Debuted This Amazing Pluto Image on Instagram

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